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Foresight Update 7 (page 5)

A publication of the Foresight Institute

Table of Contents - Foresight Update 7

Star Trek Spins Nanotale

For its fall premiere this year, the television show Star Trek featured a show using the concept of nanotechnology. As one might expect, it is not a model of accuracy. In the story, a young crew member conducts a 'nanotechnology' experiment in which he accidentally creates nanoscale entities capable of replicating, evolving, living in a wide variety of environments, working cooperatively, and even negotiating for their own planet. This seems a bit unlikely. Flexible, adaptive, evolvable, even intelligent self-replicating entities are presumably possible, but constructing one would require a massive amount of hard work and misdirected brilliance, not a mere childish accident.

Intelligence aside, even the ability to evolve is not a natural consequence of an ability to replicate. As explained in the paper "Biological and Nanomechanical Systems: Contrasts in Evolutionary Capacity," naturally-occurring replicators have been evolving for millions of years: they have evolved to evolve. All human-built machines to date have a more rigid architecture than that of biological systems, one which appears to make non-trivial evolutionary change effectively impossible. And, of course, having a specialized industrial replicator "accidentally" acquire the ability to forego its special fuels and molecular building blocks, enabling it to run wild would be about as likely as having an automobile "accidentally" acquire the ability to forgo gasoline and oil, letting it run wild and live off tree sap. We needn't worry about feral toaster ovens, either.

This is a crude condensation of part of one argument made in the paper mentioned above. Copies of the paper are available from the Foresight Institute; in the U.S. send a large self-addressed envelope with 65 cents postage. We can look forward to many years of hearing about "nanomachines accidentally run wild" and "nanomachines accidentally evolving intelligence." These easily-avoided (indeed, hard-to-cause) hazards might usefully be dubbed "the Star-Trek scenarios."

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NSF looks at "Nanotechnology"

We have heard that the National Science Foundation recently held a "Brown Bag" lunch meeting on nanotechnology. Unfortunately, the topic was presented by a well-meaning but insufficiently-informed social scientist, who had performed an opinion survey based on an inaccurate description of the concept. (No, it has not been proposed that all nanomachines will be self-replicating, or that any--much less all--will necessarily be intelligent!) Not surprisingly, the NSF participants came away with a confused impression, reflected in one participant's assertion that fire is an example of nanotechnology. We hope that the next NSF meeting on nanotechnology will include a discussion of actual proposals for nanotechnology by someone with a technical background in the subject.

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Britannica Offprint Available

An introductory article on nanotechnology, produced as part of Encyclopedia Britannica's Science and the Future Yearbook 1990, is available from the Foresight Institute. This is an excellent introduction to the topic, despite two garish and somewhat silly illustrations and a less-than-ideal title chosen by the editor. (Copies being given to technical people could be photocopied to get rid of the color; the initial (and worst) illustration could be deleted entirely.) To receive an offprint in the US, send us a self-addressed large envelope with 65 cents postage. Instructors can request up to 30 copies on school letterhead. Outside the US, just send your name and address; we know how difficult it is for you to send US currency in small amounts. We have a limited number of offprints so it is best to make your request promptly.

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Books of Note

Books are listed in order of increasing specialization and level of reading challenge. Your suggestions are welcome. If a book's price looks too high, your library should be able to get it through interlibrary loans--Editor

Technology and Politics, ed. Michael E. Kraft and Norman Vig, Duke University Press, 1988, paperback, $18.95. A collection of essays on the effects, evaluation, and regulation of technology, giving a wide range of views. Includes an essay coauthored by Foresight Institute Advisor Arthur Kantrowitz on progress made on the Scientific Adversary Procedure (discussed previously under the names 'science court' and 'fact forum'). Important reading for those who would like to participate in the debate on how nanotechnology and other upcoming technologies should be controlled. Nontechnical.

Encyclopedia Britannica's Science and the Future Yearbook 1990. Includes a good 18-page overview of nanotechnology, suitable as an introductory article for beginners. Marred by a few garish and inaccurate illustrations (which can be toned down or removed in photocopies); most illustrations are good. Contact Britannica in Chicago or request an offprint from Foresight Institute (see elsewhere in this issue for details).

Alternative Computers, Time-Life Books, 1989, hardcover, $15. Includes section on molecular computers and nanotechnology with color illustrations of applications in medicine, manufacturing, materials, and space. Part of the Understanding Computers series; for information write Christine Wolf, Time-Life Customer Service, 1450 E. Parham Road, Richmond, VA 23280.

Redesigning the Molecules of Life, ed. Steven A. Benner, Springer-Verlag, 1988, paperback, $32.50. Five papers, spanning the range from chemistry to molecular biology, develop approaches for altering complex biological macromolecules, focusing on the design of synthetic molecules to mimic biomolecules. Based on the International Symposium on Bioorganic Chemistry, Interlaken, 4-6 May 1988. Highly technical.

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A Journal to Watch

In our last issue we announced the new journal Hypermedia. We've now received a review copy and can give a clearer picture of it. Their first issue includes a broad range of material, from abstract papers and an analysis of an existing system to book reviews and a welcome from Ted Nelson. Although it is basically an academic journal, it is flexible enough to publish related material other journals might not consider: in this case, a review of the science fiction book Neuromancer, included for its portrayal of a world with a vast, interconnected computer network.

The Editorial Board includes some familiar U.S. names (Robert Akscyn of Knowledge Systems, Ted Nelson of Project Xanadu, Randy Trigg of Xerox PARC, and Nicole Yankelovich of Brown) as well as a majority from Europe and one Australian. An extensive bibliography is included covering the scattered and hard-to-find hypertext literature. If Hypermedia can maintain the quality of its first issue, it will be required reading for those working to make the promise of hypertext a reality. Published three times a year, 1989 subscriptions $85, contact Taylor Graham Publishing, 500 Chesham House, 150 Regent Street, London W1R 5FA, UK.

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Media Coverage

In Science News (4 Nov) Ivan Amato described the First Foresight Conference on Nanotechnology, stating that "Sooner or later, the Age of Nanotechnology ... will arrive." Additional conference coverage is expected in The Economist and later in Scientific American. Time (20 Nov) mentioned nanotechnology in an article on micromachines; unfortunately these two topics have less to do with each other than the article suggests. The health magazine Longevity (August) published a brief article by Joel Shurkin discussing life extension applications.

The LA Reader (3 Nov) had a cover story on nanotechnology by M.J. Wilcove. Update is sometimes asked to get across the personalities of the FI leaders, but we haven't succeeded yet. M.J.'s article does a good job of this for two of the founders. You'll notice a few bloopers, such as my being quoted as saying that technical audiences are "never" supposed to shoot at technical ideas (when I said that this is exactly what they should do), but these were inserted by the magazine staff, not by M.J. It is a fun article.--Editor

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Online BBS

We have been asked whether there is an electronic bulletin board system on nanotechnology. Yes, there is a nanotechnology discussion group, or "newsgroup," on the USENET system, a large, distributed, hierarchical electronic bulletin board. Formerly available only to those with UNIX computers, the newsgroup, entitled sci.nanotech, is now accessible to anyone through services such as the WELL at 415-332-4335 (voice). A study of USENET usage indicated that about 5000 people read sci.nanotech.

In cooperation with the Foresight Institute, sci.nanotech carries most FI publications. For further information, send email to moderator Josh Hall at

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Letters to FI

The Foresight Institute receives hundreds of letters requesting information and sending ideas. Herewith excerpts:

The French report on Molecular Electronics is now available. Published by the OFTA organization, it is the result of two years' work by 28 top scientists and industrial science managers in the field. It will be interesting if you advertise this report under translation in English.

Moreover, I am very surprised that Foresight Update is rather limited to West Coast and Japanese events. Nothing about Europe where England, West Germany, France, and soon Italy have government-supported programs. You need a correspondent in Europe!

Christian Joachim
Molecular Electronics Group
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique

Dr. Joachim is right; we have requested availability information on the French report and will recruit a European correspondent.--Editor

By now you must by very aware that the season premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation, an episode titled "Evolution," featured nanotechnology medical robots called "nanites." This widely-watched show has spread both useful and misleading memes.

In the useful category, first comes the idea of a tiny robot, small enough to enter and repair human cells. More powerfully, this spreads the idea of nanotechnology itself. Another useful message, but too weakly emphasized in this episode, was that these tiny machines will be very useful. Finally, the useful meme was spread that these devices also entail dangers.

The most obvious of the mistaken memes unfortunately was that the danger comes from potential accidents (especially of "wild runaway" scenarios), rather than abuse. This is because of the meme that Star Trek: The Next Generation has always tried to deliberately spread, that there is no such thing as evil, only error. The other really dangerous meme the episode spread was that nanotechnology will be very far in the future (the show takes place in roughly the 26th century), but fortunately that meme was only weakly implied.

Three further errors were also propagated. The first was a mistaken view of how evolution actually works. This allowed the script to include a small social message on the benefits of cooperation. It also allowed the second technically unsound meme, that autonomous "nanites" would be capable of rapid evolution. The third mistaken meme was that future nanotechnology might independently establish intelligence and a society (though it could form the physical basis for intelligences started within our society).

On the whole, this was not as bad a wide-spread introduction to nanotechnology as could have happened. Given what's already out there, the memes that we need to be trying to spread widely are: (1) the benefits of nanotechnology, (2) the dangers of its abuse, and (3) that we have to prepare for nanotechnology to arrive in our lifetimes (as those unfamiliar with nanotechnology will conceive of "lifetimes").

Tom McKendree
Garden Grove, CA

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In our last issue we expressed an urgent need for an Apple Laserwriter printer. Enthusiastic thanks go to Harry Chesley of Apple Computer for personally donating a Laserwriter Plus: this has made a big difference in our operations.

We appreciate receiving technical news and other articles from Jerry Fass, Robert G. Lovell, Ed Niehaus, R. Wayne Parker, Mark Reiners, Donald J. Sears, J. Tieber, and Jack R. Veach.

Thanks to Christos Patrinos and others who volunteered to help transfer the FI database to a faster program.

The book Redesigning the Molecules of Life reviewed in this issue was recommended by Tom McKendree.

Thanks to Ted Kaehler and Howard Rheingold for bringing the Botanical Peace Corps to our attention as a possible source of help with the BioArchive Project.

Those who helped with the conference are thanked in a separate article in this issue.

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FI Wish List

The Foresight Institute plans to set up a new office in the next few months, and we are desperate for equipment. We need just about everything an office needs (save for the Laserwriter printer recently donated by Harry Chesley). This includes desks, desk chairs, tables, a Macintosh Plus or better Mac computer (needed immediately), copier, phones, answering machine, bookcase, typewriter, fax, and so on. Anyone able to donate these, or to donate office space in the Palo Alto area, please contact us.

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Foresight thanks Dave Kilbridge for converting Update 7 to html for this web page.

From Foresight Update 7, originally published 15 December 1989.

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