Achievement in the Sciences Award
Recognizes alumni who, through exceptional and sustained success in the field of natural or quantitative sciences, outstanding character and loyalty to Drew, have most personified the basic ideals of the university.
J. Storrs “Josh” Hall C’76
Imagine a world where any object you wanted could simply be formed before your eyes in mere seconds.
With Utility Fog, a concept invented by independent scientist and author J. Storrs “Josh” Hall, it could happen. Hall is a futurist. His work in areas like artificial intelligence (AI) and nanotechnology lets him examine how research today impacts tomorrow.
“Nanotechnology is based on the concept of tiny, self-replicating robots,” he explains. “The Utility Fog is a very simple extension of the idea. Suppose, instead of building the object you want atom by atom, the tiny robots linked their arms together to form a solid mass in the shape of the object you wanted? Then, when you got tired of that avant-garde coffee table, the robots could simply shift around a little and you’d have an elegant Queen Anne piece instead.”
Ask Hall when cars will be operated by robots instead of humans, and he’ll tell you they already exist. The question, he says, is actually a matter of perfecting the technology and sorting through legalities. Hall thinks it will happen in his lifetime.
A mathematics major at Drew, Hall feels his career was largely inspired by what he calls “the amazing intellectual ferment in computer science” on campus during the 1970s.
“I first understood that there was such a thing as an intellectual life while at Drew—that there were people who spent their time and made their living creating new ideas, and not just teaching ones they had learned from someone else,” says Hall. That notion combined with the exposure to computer science at Drew had a major influence on Hall’s work.
Hall’s biggest passion is AI, and he is a seminal figure in the field of machine ethics. In his most recent book, Beyond AI: Creating the Conscience of the Machine (Prometheus 2007), the first full-length text examining machine ethics, he looks at what may be an imminent development of artificial intelligence and examines the ethical need to build those machines with a moral center.
“When a machine can decide things on its own, it’s essentially smarter than you are,” he says. “And that’s when you don’t know what it’s going to do next.”
The book reflects Hall’s strong Drew roots as it’s dedicated to two of his professors, Charles Lytle (math) and Jerome Cranmer (economics). “Both were not only brilliant but wise, accessible and fun, they made their respective fields fascinating,” recalls Hall. “Both died while I was at Drew, and I promised myself I’d write a book and dedicate it to them.”
During his subsequent graduate studies at Rutgers University, Hall found the field of nanotechnology. His first book, Nanofuture: What’s Next for Nanotechnology (Prometheus 2005), won the Foresight Institute’s Communications Prize and Drew University’s Bela Kornitzer prize.
A personal book collection numbering over 5,000 is proof of Hall’s eclectic interests. One of his greatest loves—pouring through old books in used bookstores—is dying out because of, oddly enough, technology. While he mourns the decline in small, privately owned used bookstores, Hall still loves that his iPad can hold more than 10 times the number of books in his collection.
Hall and his wife, Sandy, live in Laporte, Penn. In his spare time, he’s building a robot, a project incorporating countless ideas he’s had over the years. In the rest of his spare time, he enjoys traveling, history, fine wine and tennis.