Talking tech with Bill Joy

Famed technologist-turned-venture-capitalist says tech industry innovation is moving beyond Moore's Law.

When Bill Joy joined Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers as a partner earlier this year, it sounded at first blush like an odd coupling.

Here you had Kleiner Perkins, perhaps Silicon Valley's premier venture capital firm, a guy painted in some corners as the fifth horseman of the apocalypse.

But that would be a misreading of the famed developer, as well as of his provocative essay published five years ago in Wired magazine.

Joy caused a stir when he questioned the ethical aspects of pursuing research in emerging fields, like genetic engineering, where biology

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intersects with technology. But he approached the issue from the perspective of a veteran technologist--one with a long list of accomplishments.

As a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, Joy created what became a popular variant of the Unix operating system. He later co-founded Sun Microsystems, where he led the development of the company's Solaris operating system as well as its UltraSparc processor.

Technically speaking, this isn't Joy's first go-around with venture capitalism. After leaving Sun in 2003, he formed a VC partnership with fellow Sun alumni Andreas Bechtolsheim (who has since rejoined Sun) and Roy Sardina to found HighBar Ventures. That company's one great claim to fame was e-mail security company BrightMail, which got sold last year to Symantec for $475 million.

CNET recently spoke to Joy about the use of technology in industrial societies and about venture capital prospects in the tech business.

Q: Since your Wired piece in 2000, have you come to any firm conclusion about whether technology is going to wind up as a force for good or evil in the 21st century?
Joy: It certainly seemed to have heightened an awareness of terrorism and also heightened the awareness of the possibility of the abuse of technology. Technology can also be a force for incredible good. We face a lot of problems that we'd like to address with technology, such as the threat of the flu endemic.

What is your biggest concern about the way technology is being used by industrial societies?
Joy: I think there has to be a balance between the profit motive, which drives a lot of creativity and ethical behavior, and the responsibility to manage things, which can be abused. That balance is usually through the laws and regulations in the scientific societies, and it's important to emphasize that that balance needs to be maintained.

Since the terrorist attacks four years ago, people have become more aware of these dangers, and so there has been progress in the way people are thinking about these things.

Do you think Silicon Valley should factor more considerations into the equation before they come up with new technologies?
Joy: It's not the case that any one person can deal with the consequences of what they're doing necessarily when they're doing it. It has to come from a collective responsibility. For example, in biology, where a lot of new powerful techniques are being created, it's very important that everybody pays attention to the work in their field and comment on different things in their field--not just their own work.

Do you think there should be limitations on what technology gets sold? Some nations, like China and Saudi Arabia, have made use of advanced routing technologies to limit what their people can see on the Internet.
Joy: In general, technology is a very powerful force for openness and change. Any such rearguard attempts to limit what people can read will ultimately fail.

Where is the industry in terms of the technology creation cycle?
Joy: There's a lot of creativity out there right now. There were a number of years where PCs were the thing, and then networking was the thing, and then the Web was the thing, and so on. But now there are really many different themes...there's a raft of different innovation going on in different areas. You can't pin it down like you could in the latter part of the '90s.

What do you think accounts for the change?
Joy: It's just a change because of where the scientific and technical progress is right now. It's moved past just being about Moore's Law.

But there are so many different places it could be. Science and technology are advancing in ways in which surprises are going to occur. You know, when they cloned the sheep Dolly, everyone was surprised. Everyone knew about cloning as a possibility, but no one thought it would actually happen.

There are a lot of things which sound like "Star Trek" or science fiction, and some of them will actually happen. That's the stuff that's really surprising--not that someone could think of it, but that someone

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