The First Foresight Conference
on Nanotechnology, hosted by the Stanford Department of Computer Science
and sponsored by the Foresight Institute and Global Business Network, was
the first major conference to examine molecular systems engineering as a
path to nanotechnology. Held on October 27-29 in the wake of the Bay Area
earthquake, the conference in Palo Alto drew 150 invited participants from
three continents and many disciplines.
The conference was designed as a small meeting for researchers working in
the enabling sciences and technologies leading to nanotechnology, with the
goal of showing them the state-of-the-art in relevant fields and encouraging
new collaborative efforts crossing disciplinary lines. Conferees were encouraged
to be technically critical of all ideas presented to avoid a problem common
to new interdisciplinary fields: lack of discipline.
The Foresight Institute was especially pleased to have attendees from outside
the U.S.: Japan, England, and Italy. Organizations represented at the meeting
included major universities and companies, such as MIT, Caltech, University
of Tokyo, IBM, and Bell Labs. Financial assistance for the meeting was donated
by Du Pont, one of the companies most active in the enabling sciences.
The Saturday sessions featured scientists defining the state of the art
in various enabling technologies leading to nanotechnology. By Saturday
afternoon, participants had a good overview of where work stands in these
fields: further along than conference chairman Eric Drexler predicted in
Engines of Creation
(1986), but still an unknown number of decades away from nanotechnology,
which was defined as "thorough control of the structure of matter."
Building systems at the molecular level
Researchers in protein design, chemistry, biochemistry, biology, scanning
probe microscopy, quantum electronics, computer science, micromachines,
physics, molecular modeling, and molecular electronics were drawn together
to discuss a common theme: understanding and building structures, devices,
and systems on the scale of molecules.
The excitement was palpable. Michael D. Ward of Du Pont described the meeting
as "one of the most stimulating" he has attended. Regarding nanotechnology
he stated that "the drive to achieve that goal certainly promises to
stimulate innovative research in molecular systems engineering." Peter
Schwartz of the Global Business Network remarked: "This is likely to
be a seminal event, seen from the turn of the century."
The meeting included a strong presence from Japan. Conference chairman Eric
Drexler stated that "We need to embark upon an international collaboration
to develop nanotechnology, but the U.S. is not yet ready to support its
end of such a cooperative effort. Japan has identified what we call 'molecular
systems engineering' as a national goal, and is commiting substantial multidisciplinary
resources to the effort. The U.S. must join in or risk being left behind."
Components of molecular size could make desk-top computers
the future more powerful than all computers in existence today
Nanotechnology has been described as a key manufacturing technology
of the 21st century, which will be able to manufacture almost any chemically
stable structure at low cost. Such precise fabrication abilities could be
used both to improve existing products and to build products that are impossible
to manufacture with present technology. Based on estimates of parts count
and power dissipation, components of molecular size could make desk-top
computers of the future more powerful than all computers in existence today
combined. Devices smaller than a red blood cell could be constructed to
circulate through the body and remove fat deposits or destroy infectious
organisms. These are potential long-term applications of nanotechnology,
but the conference started with an examination of where we stand today in
efforts to engineer molecular systems. Several venture capitalists were
present to scout out near-term commercial applications of these efforts.
Michael Ward of Du Pont described the
design of self-assembling systems by controlling the charge on individual
molecules. If the pattern of electrostatic charge on individual molecules
is properly designed, then it is possible to manipulate many properties
of resulting molecular aggregates.
Federico Capasso, head of Quantum Phenomena and Device Research at AT&T
Bell Labs, discussed current work on exploiting quantum effects in devices
built with controlled energy band gap variations on a nanometer scale. Fabrication
is currently a major limit in building and commercializing smaller devices.
Tracy Handel of Du Pont discussed the de novo design and construction
of a protein by William F. DeGrado's group. This work provides a dramatic
illustration that protein engineering is possible, and thus that objects
of multi-nanometer scale can be designed and built to precise molecular
Jay Ponder, of the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at
Yale, described systems for molecular modeling and for the computer-aided
design of proteins. He reports that an algorithm developed in collaboration
with Frederic Richards has been quite successful in generating sequences
of hydrophobic amino acids which will successfully pack to form the core
of a protein with a specified backbone geometry. Molecular modeling is of
general importance in molecular systems engineering because the proposed
structures are at present often expensive to synthesize and characterize;
longer-term proposals (under examination for exploratory purposes) may involve
structures that are entirely beyond today's synthetic capabilties. In either
case, molecular modeling can help distinguish between workable and unworkable
Robert Birge, Director of the Center for Molecular Electronics at Syracuse
University, reported on attempts to build a large optical memory with access
times below 2 nanoseconds, using bacteriorhodopsin as a molecular switching
element. They currently can achieve 20 nanosecond access times, the major
limitation being the speed at which the optical beam can be positioned to
"read" or "write" single bits.
A later talk by Hiroyuki Sasabe of Japan's Institute for Physical and Chemical
Research reported on the current state of molecular engineering research
in Japan. He described a broad range of interdisciplinary projects in "intelligent
materials" and molecular electronics. Dr. Sasabe's talk and discussions
with Japanese researchers indicated that Japan regards molecular systems
engineering as a national priority, and is investing heavily.
Joseph Mallon, Co-president of Nova Sensor, described the wide ranging abilities
of current micromachines. These devices, typically measured in tens of microns,
are made primarily of silicon using semiconductor fabrication technology,
but are mechanical in nature. Electrostatic motors, gears, levers, joints,
sensors, turbines, pumps, and a wide variety of other mechanical devices
have been made in this size range and shown to work.
Physics and computation
John Foster, manager of Molecular Studies for Manufacturing at IBM's Almaden
Research Center, presented work with STM (scanning tunneling microscopy)
technology, describing advances in both surface imaging and surface modifications.
Achievements include pinning individual molecules to a surface.
Norman Margolus, of MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science, explained the
known theoretical limits to computation, perhaps more properly termed the
lack of known limits. Quantum uncertainty, thermal noise, and other factors
commonly thought to limit computation are, instead, merely constraints.
By designing computers in an appropriate way (for example, by building reversible
computers) these constraints can at least in principle be satisfied without
loss of speed and without requiring any fixed energy dissipation per logic
operation. Even with practical constraints, quantum computers seem possible
in which gate operation energy costs are smaller than thermal vibrational
energies, and gate speeds in the femtosecond range seem plausible.
Development pathway proposed
Eric Drexler presented recent work that clarifies technical issues in the
design of an "assembler," a device capable of guiding the synthesis
of virtually any specified chemically stable structure via positional control
of chemical reaction sites. Both in his talk and in an accompanying inch-thick
preliminary draft, he outlined the design of a sub-micron scale articulated
mechanism capable of positioning its tip with a standard deviation in position
of less than 0.04 nanometers, despite both thermal and quantum effects.
He also presented design sketches for proto-assemblers: cruder devices that
might be made in the next decade which could be used both to experiment
with positional control of chemical reactions and to build more sophisticated
devices. His proposal that STM and AFM (atomic force microscope) tips might
be capped by engineered molecular structures, thus providing precise atomic
control of the structure at the tip (something that is notably lacking at
the present time), was met with particular interest. Such a device was seen
as a first step on the path to nanotechnology, also termed molecular manufacturing.
Several talks explored the future implications and policy issues raised
by this new technology. This process was perhaps the other major achievement
of the meeting: consideration of the consequences of a powerful new technology
decades before development is completed.
Bill Joy, Vice President for R&D of Sun Microsystems, described the
progress to be expected in computer hardware as nanotechnology is approached
and finally achieved. To get across the power of these machines, he introduced
a new unit of measure: the number of Vax-years per screen refresh (i.e.
the amount of computing which could be done per screen 'flicker' on a computer).
With nanotechnology this comes to millennia of Vax computer time per refresh.
Even Bill Joy, known for his long-term outlook, admitted having trouble
envisioning what to do with this level of computing power.
Lester Milbrath, Director of the Reseach Program in Environment and Society
at the State University of New York at Buffalo, expressed his concern about
possible abuses of the technology. Although it could be used to protect
and restore the environment, he doubts both that it can be developed in
time to head off the environmental problems now facing us, and doubts that
we will be wise enough to use it properly. These concerns were addressed
in additional talks devoted to public policy issues.
My own talk discussed techiques for controlling artificial self-replicating
systems. While attractive from an economic point of view, such systems must
be designed to avoid any opportunity for unchecked replication and mutation.
While "Star Trek" has popularized the idea that "nanites"
could rapidly evolve into intelligent social beings capable of negotiating
for their own planet, this popular vision appears highly implausible. The
simplest and most practical artificial self-replicating systems will have
inflexible designs and special raw-material requirements, making them unlike
anything able to survive in nature. Nonetheless, regulation of the design
and use of such systems seems essential to ensure that dangerous new capabilities
are not added by irresponsible or malicious parties.
Greg Fahy, a researcher with the American Red Cross, discussed the medical
implications of progress toward nanotechnology. Aging is a consequence of
molecular changes that take place within the body, including changes in
genes and their expression. Experimenters have successfully slowed aging
in experimental animals; if this work can be extended to humans it should
result in increased decades of healthy life. Progress in molecular design
on the path to nanotechnology is likely to continue and strengthen this
trend, eventually allowing the retention of good health for a prolonged
Experimenters have successfully slowed aging in experimental
The conference closed with two presentations on the broader impacts
of technological advance. Economist Gordon Tullock of the University of
Arizona cited historical trends showing that, although scattered individuals
and groups have been hurt economically by technological advances, the overall
effects have been positive. Arthur Kantrowitz of Dartmouth--an Advisor to
the Foresight Institute--argued for keeping research programs open rather
than classified, suggesting that if classified programs must exist, they
will benefit from parallel research programs which are open.
A conference proceedings volume is in progress, edited by James Lewis of
Oncogen in Seattle. The Foresight Institute plans to make available audio
and videotapes of the presentations; these will
be announced in Update when available. In addition to the
speakers, the meeting included demonstrations of hardware and software:
a scanning tunneling microscope (Digital Instruments), graphics hardware
(Silicon Graphics, Sun, and Stardent), and molecular modeling software (Biosym,
Tripos, and Tektronix). Conference coverage in the press includes Science
News (Nov 4) and expected writeups in Scientific American
and The Economist.
While it is too early to tell the ultimate impact of this first international
conference on nanotechnology, it has clearly raised the level of interest
and focused greater attention on both the technology and its consequences.
It may well prove to have been the seminal event in the coalescence of a
new field and in the emergence of a new and powerful technology.
Dr. Merkle's interests range from
neurophysiology to computer security; he also lectures on nanotechnology.
Nanotechnology: Molecular Engineering and its Implications,
January 30-31, MIT Room 66-110. Symposium sponsored by the MIT Nanotechnology
Study Group. See writeup elsewhere in this issue.
World Economic Forum, Feb. 1-7, Davos, Switzerland. Annual
meeting for corporate executives, to include a plenary-session panel on
"Technological Turbulences" with FI's president, Eric Drexler;
Nobel prizewinners James Watson and David Baltimore; the chair of MIT's
chemistry department, Mark Wrighton; and the director of the Institute for
Advanced Study, Dr. Golberger. Drexler will present a separate briefing
on nanotechnology. Contact: phone (41/22) 736 02 43; fax (41/22) 786 27
Second Technology, Entertainment, and Design Communications Conference,
Feb. 22-25, Monterey (Calif.) Conference Center. Speakers include Nicholas
Negroponte (MIT Media Lab), John Sculley, Allan Kay, and Bill Atkinson (Apple),
Ted Nelson (hypertext), and Jaron Lanier (virtual reality). $695. Contact
Nanotechnology, topic of Carnegie Mellon School of Computer
Science Distinguished Lecture, tentative date March 21, given by Eric Drexler.
Multimedia Expo, March 26-28, New York Hilton, NYC. Conference
and exhibit of multimedia, hypermedia, and interactive technologies. Contact
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