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Foresight Update 2 (page 3)

A publication of the Foresight Institute

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Computational Markets

"Agoric systems" may be of use in developing intelligent machines, with all that that implies. Mark S. Miller and K. Eric Drexler, working at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, have recently completed a set of three papers on this subject, to appear in a book titled The Ecology of Computation (Bernardo Huberman, ed., Elsevier Science Publishers, North Holland, 1988).

A great challenge in artificial intelligence, and in computer science as a whole, is to build working, useful systems more complex than any single human mind can design or fully grasp. That such systems are possible is clear--living organisms and societies are examples. Both have emerged through evolutionary processes, through the variation and selecton of replicators. Evolutionary principles can be applied in computation as well.

The first of the three papers, "Comparative Ecology: A Computational Perspective," compares biological systems and idealized markets from an evolutionary perspective. Considering the goal of building systems that serve external purposes, it concludes that idealized markets, based on cooperative trade, provide a better framework than biological-style systems, based on highly non-cooperative predation. A variety of other ecological systems are examined more briefly.

The second paper, "Markets and Computation: Agoric Open Systems," considers in more detail how prices and market forces can shape cooperation among pieces of software, fostering the evolution of efficient, capable computational systems. The third paper, "Incentive Engineering for Computational Resource Management," examines the problems involved in using markets to allocate memory space and processor time to software, and describes a set of initial algorithms that could help get the process off the ground.

Agoric open systems are a proposal for a new way to organize computation, blending design and evolution. If successful, this approach could encourage the growth of large, capable systems of software--including automated engineering systems able to speed the development of new technologies. In the course of the last year, agoric systems have become a research objective at Xerox PARC.

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Spreading Memes

Since last issue the concepts of nanotechnology, hypertext, and agoric open systems have been presented to diverse audiences, from top technical conclaves to a high school summer program. (The latter is the Space Sciences Academy at Stanford, which included nanotechnology in its program again this year.)

Top researchers were introduced (or in many cases reintroduced) to nanotechnology at the first Artificial Life Workshop, held at Los Alamos National Lab. This workshop covered a broad range of interests, from spontaneous order resulting from biologically-inspired processes to construction of systems with lifelike characteristics; it included discussion of software, robotics, and genetic engineering, as well as nanotechnology. A proceedings volume is in progress and promises to be interesting; we'll report when it's available.

Other groups learning about the subject included the third Hackers Conference (a meeting of computer programmers), the Reality Club (watch for their upcoming publication series by the same name), and a group at U.C. Berkeley including Prof. Hubert Dreyfus. Researchers at the Digital Equipment Corporation are learning more on nanotechnology after having their interest stimulated by David Forrest, an MIT doctoral candidate and NSG member who covered the topic heavily as part of his summer employment assignment to report on molecular computing.

"Hypertext" is of course a popular buzzword now. FI's thoughts on what constitutes a desirable system were presented at the Directions and Implications of Advanced Computing symposium, sponsored by the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, and were published in the proceedings, DIAC 87.

Design work on an open distributed hypertext system (the "Linktext" proposal) was presented by designer Robin Hanson at a Tech Talk at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. Eric Drexler introduced Hanson's talk with a brief explanation of the value of such systems.

Work on agoric open systems, explained elsewhere in this issue, was discussed by co-authors Mark S. Miller and Eric Drexler at a workshop on logic programming and open systems held at Xerox PARC in early September. Miller also presented the ideas at the Artificial Life Workshop.

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Interview: Eric Drexler

Continued from last issue

FI: Who's doing the work in this field today?

Drexler: Well, the question of who's doing work in the field very much depends on what one means by "the field." If you look at the full range of fields that are contributing to the emergence of nanotechnology--protein design, synthetic chemistry, scanning tunneling microscope technology, molecular modeling on computers--there are dozens or hundreds of research groups, in industry and academia, in the US, Europe, Japan and the Soviet Union, and so the numbers are large and what's going on is very diverse. At the other end of the spectrum, looking at nanotechnology itself--at what can be done with real assemblers--that's a development that's far enough off in the future that it doesn't make sense for industry, for example, to be working on it. Therefore people are just beginning to think about it, and at this point hardly anyone is doing work on assemblers and what can be built with them.

FI: What technical work are you doing now in the field?

Drexler: I'm currently working on a series of papers to fill in more detail on the design of things such as molecular machines, molecular mechanical computers, assemblers, and ultimately cell repair machines. The first paper, which discusses the details of molecular structure, motion, and thermal noise for the logic elements of a mechanical nanocomputer, will appear in the Proceedings of the Third International Symposium on Molecular Electronic Devices, scheduled for publication in 1988.
FI: When will we develop genuine nanotechnology?

Drexler: This is very hard to say, again because we don't fully understand the ground to cross between here and there, or just how soon the "exploration parties" will set out, how lucky they will be, and so forth. A friend of mine, Roger Gregory of the Xanadu hypertext project, likes to say that his optimistic estimate is thirty years, and his pessimistic estimate is ten. Though I should hasten to add that Roger not only worries about the dangers of this technology but also expects us to benefit greatly from its positive uses. But in terms of that range of dates, I don't know of a good argument against it.

FI: What are your greatest hopes and fears for the future?

Drexler: In the long run my greatest hope is that we will handle the coming revolutions in nanotechnology and the comparable or even greater ones in artificial intelligence so that we can benefit from their enormous potential. The fear of course is that we'll wipe ourselves out or paint ourselves into some very ugly corner.

In the shorter term, though, my greatest fear is that as this technology moves forward the debate will polarize between groups that blindly support the technology--seeing its benefits for everything from economic well-being, to medicine, to improving the lot of people in the Third World--and those who blindly oppose it, seeing its potential for abuse in the wrong hands and perhaps imagining dangers that aren't even there. I'm afraid that what we'll see is another round of fruitless public mudslinging, with opposed sides not really addressing each other's cases and simply trying to stir up as much emotion as they can for their side of the argument. You can imagine a "debate" polarized between the followers of someone like Lyndon LaRouche, pushing technology with inflamed rhetoric, and the followers of someone like Jeremy Rifkin trying to block it completely. Because if that happens, it's unlikely that we're going to be well-prepared for these developments when they emerge, and it's even possible that this will paralyze the democracies as these technologies emerge.

My hope is that we'll see a diverse, quarrelsome, but basically united center--one that embraces people who fear these technologies and urge caution, but understand that they're inevitable and can have great benefits, and people who look toward these technologies with great hope and optimism, but understand that there are some dangers that need to be watched.

We need to reach a wide range of opinion leaders

FI: What do you see as important goals for the next few years?

Drexler: In the next few years, we need to reach a wide range of opinion leaders, particularly in the scientific and technical disciplines and some of the longer-range thinkers in political and economic policy. We need to have these opinion leaders exposed to the ideas of nanotechnology, assemblers, and the rest in such a way that they come away seeing them as credible concerns and understanding their basic implications. And we need to develop a family of organizations that bring people together who are concerned with these matters, so that they can exchange ideas and work together effectively to influence the course of events--to influence the way this technology emerges and how it's used. Our goal is to help that process along and to provide a way for people to get together and do these things.

FI: What can readers of this newsletter do to help this goal?

Drexler: Readers can think about how they might be able to help this effort, and can let us know what role they might be able to play. And they can inform their friends and colleagues and try to get them involved as well.

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Books of Note

The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT, Stewart Brand, Viking, 1987. Vividly describes the Lab's goals and projects in which computers, broadcasting, and publishing are merging to give us personalized technologies. A fun read, accessible to laymen.

The Evolution of Cooperation, Robert Axelrod, Basic Books, 1984. Describes an elegant computer game that showed how cooperation can evolve among self-interested, competing entities. Shows what conditions promote cooperation and the importance of being "nice, retaliatory, and forgiving."

Molecular Electronic Devices II, Forrest Carter (ed.), Marcel Dekker, 1987. Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Molecular Electronic Devices held in 1983 at the Naval Research Lab. Oriented toward chemistry, it also includes one paper on nanotechnology. If the nearly $100 price daunts you, have your favorite technical library buy it.

Technologies of Freedom, Ithiel de Sola Poole, Belknap/Harvard, 1983. A classic work on freedom of speech and of the press in electronic media, combining history, law, and technology. Of interest to all who look forward to hypertext publishing as a new free press. Accessible to laymen, also available in paperback.

Engines of Creation, K. Eric Drexler, Anchor Press/Doubleday. Just published in paperback.

Molecular Mechanics, ACS Monograph 177, U. Burkert and N. Allinger, Amer. Chem. Soc., 1982. Standard reference on molecular mechanics, useful for molecule hackers.

Induction: Processes of Inference, Learning, and Discovery, John Holland et al., MIT Press, 1986. Inductive reasoning and learning in both organisms and machines are given a new theoretical interpretation by two psychologists, a computer scientist, and a philosopher. Yale's Sternberg calls it "the most important book on induction, and probably on reasoning in general, that has ever been written."

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Information Available

David Forrest of the MIT NSG has prepared an information packet, entitled "Nanotechnology Press Kit," which we understand is available to anyone on request from the MIT News Office, 77 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02139.

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Evolution in Software

Richard Dawkins's book The Blind Watchmaker (reviewed last issue) is due out in paperback in January; for an added $9.95, buyers can get Blind Watchmaker software for the Macintosh personal computer. This program simulates the variation and selection processes of evolution. The "organisms" are line drawings which have an "embryology" involving the number and pattern of branching lines, which are controlled by numerical "genes." Random mutation produces variations in the drawings, while users control the selection process--essentially, picking what looks interesting. A startling range of patterns can quickly be evolved, from trees to insects to frogs to faces. Blind Watchmaker literally brings home the power of combining random mutation with nonrandom selection, and it's addictive fun too.

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Letters to FI

The Foresight Institute has received hundreds of letters--from across the US, Canada, Japan, and Europe--requesting information on our activities. Herewith some excerpts:

... My primary research interest is metabolic engineering, the rational analysis, design and construction of biochemical networks. An eventual extension of this work is the design of membranes and other cellular components. If you know of others interested in this area of nanotechnology I would greatly appreciate a listing of their names and addresses.

Prof. Douglas Cameron
University of Wisconsin
I count my reading of Engines of Creation among the more inspiring and hopeful intellectual experiences of my lifetime.... Thank you for writing it. I've long followed developments in technology--primarily electronics--and have encouraged an active futures orientation in our small company here in San Francisco. As an independent consultant, writer, researcher, and entrepreneur, I'm interested in continuing to track the evolution of bioelectronics and related fields. I'm also interested in examining and helping to clarify the social implications of these developments.

Dean Gengle
San Francisco, CA
I am a chemistry professor at Princeton University whose research interests are the electronic structure and reactivity of organic, inorganic and biological systems. We are concerned with the understanding of the mechanistic principles and structural patterns of molecules ... have been greatly stimulate by Drexler's book and believe that our research is taking us precisely the direction suggested there.

Prof. Leland Allen
Princeton University
... My interest stems from a very intimate participation in the methodology of molecular engineering which is the basis of our company.

James Cusumano
Chairman and Chief Technical Officer
Catalytica Associates, Inc.
Engines of Creation is such a thought-provoking and stimulating book that it took me almost five weeks to read. Your reasoned analysis and optimistic forecasts ... required me to "step back" and sort out my thoughts after each reading of a few pages.... Your combination of insight, well-organized arguments and prediction of success for mankind continue to add energy and purpose to each day of my life....

Henry Lederer
Wayzata, MN
Life-extension research is of great interest to me, as are the potentials of nanotechnology for establishing an environmentally safe form of industrial production. Drexler's book ... does an excellent job of charting the likely road into the future with both its opportunities and its hazards.

Patrick Milburn
Cambria, CA
... I would appreciate being placed on your mailing list and receiving any information on [nanotechnology]. As a molecular biologist I am very interested in the application of biotechnology to all facets of life, but especially to computer technology and artificial intelligence.... I would like to keep abreast of the latest developments in nanotechnology that have relevance to medicine.

Stephen Grund, PhD
Health Science and Technology Program
... It's surprising that more futurists have not seen [nanotechnology] earlier, as it is so much in line with technological trends of increasing miniaturization and fine control over matter. I particularly liked your portrayal of the ease and speed that will apply to future construction of space hardware. It is refreshing to have a virtually certain proof that space settlement need not be stopped by economics....

So far as the immediate future is concerned, I think that the recognition of our need for better institutions is right on. Fact forums and hypertext will be needed for dealing with the new technology, as well as providing a competitive focus for new memes. Building these new institutions certainly seems like a better tactic than simply flailing away at trying to improve the old institutions.

David Blenkinsop
Ormiston, Saskatchewan

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FI Questionnaires

Over 200 FI contributors have filled out our five-page questionnaire. As a result, we now have a good feel for who is interested in nanotechnology, and for their views on the FI approach to this and other coming technologies.

FI participants come from all walks of life, from professors and technical workers--the majority--to truck drivers and clerical workers. Not surprisingly, many of us work in the computer field. Almost all agree with FI's assessment of the importance of nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, hypertext publishing/social software, fact forums, and space development as technologies which will drastically alter our future, but some are skeptical regarding one or more of these ideas.

The vast majority are somewhat-to-very concerned about possible misuse of new technologies, social and economic disruption caused by them, and unnecessary delays in development due to fears based on ignorance. Protecting and restoring environmental quality is a widespread concern, regardless of political affiliation.

Most respondents are "strongly interested" in all of the information areas we list, from technical information to progress reports on organizational work. Naturally, nontechnical people are less enthusiastic about the former, and some technical people are uninterested in the latter. Most want both, and everything we list in between, so until two separate publications can be justified we'll combine technical and nontechnical information in Update.

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Too many friends have helped FI in too many ways to be thanked here, but we'd like to mention a few who've responded to our calls for advice on two particular topics. For advising us on Macintosh accounting software, thanks to (among others) Frederick Reynolds, Lance Albin, and T. Toth-Fejel. For advising us on finding an Executive Director, thanks to (among others) Ray Alden, Pat Wagner, Brian Quig, Gayle Pergamit, Stewart Brand, M.L. Hanson, Margaret Jordan, and Linda Arc.

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Foresight thanks Dave Kilbridge for converting Update 2 to html for this web page.

From Foresight Update 2, originally published 15 November 1987.

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