When you're Bill Joy, one of the cofounders of a leading Silicon Valley technology company--as well as its chief scientist--it's probably a safe assumption that you think technology is an intrinsically good thing. That's why so many people found it weird when the Sun Microsystems executive wrote an 11,000-word manifesto for Wired magazine in 2000 titled "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us." Joy called for limiting research in robotics, genetics, and nanotechnology, arguing that these emerging technologies--while indisputably useful to mankind--are also wildly unpredictable and terribly dangerous. In fact, he termed them "knowledge enabled" weapons of mass destruction.
So when Joy retired from Sun back in September 2003, it was tempting to jump to the conclusion that Joy was giving up on the silicon age, that he was going to head to the backwoods like Thoreau and live off the land. Wrong again. Instead, a year and a half later, Joy has returned to prominence in Silicon Valley as a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the venture-capital firm that has backed such tech successes as Amazon, Electronic Arts, Google, and, yes, Sun. "I had been doing some angel investing, and I came across a company that was particularly interesting, and I brought it to John Doerr [of Kleiner Perkins], who I have known for more than 20 years," says Joy. "We invested some KPCB money and some of my money, and then John suggested that we work more closely with each other."
Earthy. During his interregnum, Joy invested through a Silicon Valley firm called Highbar Ventures with another Sun cofounder, Andy Bechtolsheim. But Joy also spent some time at the Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colo., an energy-policy think tank. There he was able to explore his interest in using breakthrough technologies to promote the more efficient use of natural resources. "We can build much stronger and lighter and ecologically friendly materials, for instance, using biomimetics, which looks at nature to find solutions already engineered through natural selection and evolution," he says. An example: sails that capture moisture from the air the way the wings of Namibian desert beetles do.
At RMI, Joy also put together a team of specialists with expertise in everything from wastewater treatment to advanced battery storage to help design his new, environmentally friendly, 56-meter sailing yacht--Ethereal--which is currently being constructed in the Netherlands and scheduled for launch in 2008. In addition to creating one supercool, high-tech sailboat--fuel cells for storing energy, light-emitting diodes for illumination--this collaborative process is supposed to demonstrate the way cutting-edge environmental technologies could potentially be employed in a small neighborhood, village, or refugee camp. In fact, Joy is having the effort filmed for a possible TV documentary.
At KPCB, Joy also intends to concentrate on firms developing alternative energy sources and more efficient products and materials, as well as the Internet and wireless sectors. "I want to work in areas that can be both financially successful and significant and that are capable of making a real difference in the world."
For now, Joy's crusade against tech WMD s is on hold. At one point, he was going to turn the Wired article into a book. But since 9/11, "people are more aware of the issue of dangerous technologies, and there seem to be a lot of other people covering that beat." Anyway, Joy's new venture-capital work is sort of a "supply side" way of dealing with the same issues. "There are a lot of great opportunities to make positive change by investing in companies that make technologies that address global problems." Seems like a pretty good reason that the future does need Bill Joy.
This story appears in the March 28, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.