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Foresight Update 11 (page 4)

A publication of the Foresight Institute

Table of Contents - Foresight Update 11

Media Watch

A documentary on nanotechnology entitled "Little by Little" has won the Prix du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. Produced by David Kennard and others at InCA for the Equinox series on Channel 4 in England, the program was honored at the 7th International Television Science Broadcast Festival in Paris last October, sponsored by the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and the Agence Jules Verne. An international jury chaired by the Dean of the Faculty of Education Science at Tokyo University awarded the prizes. The award cited the program "because it shows how the dreams of one scientist can create effervescence in worlds as separated from one another as chemistry, biology, and technology."

The February 7 issue of Nature featured a short but striking article on nanotechnology in Japan (see article in this issue). The March-April issue of The Futurist included a nanotechnology article, as did the January-February issue of Canada's Equinox magazine. The New Scientist ran a review of the British edition of Engines of Creation last fall (1Sep90).

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A Choice of Conferences

Foresight supporters interested in nanotechnology have a variety of meetings to consider attending this year. Each puts a different emphasis on the topic: The last is the focus of the Second Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology, discussed elsewhere in this issue.

Space Development Conference

The space development community has long been familiar with the concept of nanotechnology: one of the first public talks on the topic was given at the 1982 Space Development Conference. This year's meeting will be held in San Antonio on May 22-27, with the Foresight Institute as a cosponsor.

On the afternoon of Saturday, May 25, Foresight president Eric Drexler will speak on the relevance of nanotechnology to the goal of space development. Hardware difficulties have plagued both government and private space efforts; we need materials and vehicles which are both more reliable and less expensive. The best prospect for major advances in these areas is molecular manufacturing.

The next day will feature a workshop focusing on the next steps: what those present can do to advance the field. The National Space Society--the primary sponsor of the meeting along with the Southwest Research Institute--is part of a family of pro-space groups, some of which have substantial experience in influencing government policy and spending. (This is part of the reason that NASA's budget is larger than that of the National Science Foundation.) The workshop will explore how this expertise could be used to further nanotechnology R&D, and how the individuals present can help make it happen.

In addition to the talk and workshop, we will have a table at which Foresight supporters can gather to share information and make contacts. We are looking for volunteers to staff this table, especially on Sunday morning and afternoon. If you would like to help, please notify the Foresight office.

Everyone interested in speeding nanotechnology development is urged to come to the conference and help work out a strategy. All Foresight directors will be attending the weekend segment of the meeting; this is your chance to speak with them and other Foresight supporters. Prior to May 1, registration is only $70 for those affiliated with Foresight; afterward the cost is $80. The student rate is $50. See the Upcoming Events list in this issue for more details.


The Ecotech conference being held November 14-17 in Monterey, California, will explore ways in which technology can be used to improve the environment. As the conference brochure asks: "How can the resources, creativity, and ingenuity of technology industries by applied to solving the world's most pressing social and environmental problems?" The potential of nanotechnology for clean manufacturing and for repairing damage to the biosphere will be discussed in a talk by Eric Drexler and in a later workshop, along with observations regarding the potential for abuse. The Foresight Institute is a participating organization in Ecotech, along with groups ranging from Computing Professionals for Social Responsibility, Utne Reader, and Econet to Apple Computer and Global Business Network.

Since it is they who will eventually implement clean methods of production, attendees from the fields of investment, business, and industry are being targeted, as well as scientists, technologists, and policy makers. Based on the registration fee ($595) we conclude that the meeting is designed for decision makers and professionals in relevant fields, rather than for grassroots environmental activists. (Foresight hopes to sponsor or cosponsor an activist-oriented meeting in the future.)

More details on the meeting will be announced as they become available. Meanwhile, mark your calendars if you think there's a chance you may be able to attend. But don't wait too long to register: attendance is limited to 450 people, and interest in the meeting is expected to be intense. See the Upcoming Events list in this issue for details.

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Nanotechnology Conference

The Second Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology will be held on November 7-9, 1991, in Palo Alto, California. Taking the theme "Toward Molecular Control," it is sponsored by the Foresight Institute, Stanford University's Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and University of Tokyo's Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology. The conference is an invitational meeting of scientists and technologists working in fields leading toward molecular nanotechnology: thorough three-dimensional structural control of materials and devices at the molecular level. The conference will cover topics relevant to the pursuit of molecular control, drawing from fields such as: Developments in these fields are converging, opening opportunities for fruitful collaboration in developing new instruments, devices, and capabilities. Presentations will: A major objective will be to provide participants with the information and contacts they need to make progress toward molecular control. Since these efforts frequently cross disciplinary boundaries, the meeting will be organized to help attendees make contact with potential research collaborators outside their own field. The last day of the conference will be devoted to workshop-style discussion of the approaches of greatest interest to those present. Throughout the meeting there will be demonstrations by leading vendors of products useful in the pursuit of molecular control, including molecular modeling software and hardware, and proximal probe systems.

Call for Papers

Contributions on relevant topics are solicited for presentation in lecture or poster format. Potential contributors are asked to submit an abstract (200-400 words), including names, addresses, telephone and fax numbers of the author(s), and an indication of whether oral or poster presentation is preferred. Abstracts of both oral and poster papers will be available to attendees at the meeting, and papers of both kinds will be reviewed for publication. In choosing papers, priority will be given to (1) cogent descriptions of the state of the art in techniques relevant to the construction of complex molecular systems, (2) well-grounded proposals for interdisciplinary efforts which, if funded and pursued, could substantially advance the state of the art, and (3) reports of recent relevant research.


Proceedings of the conference will be refereed and published in a special issue of the international journal Nanotechnology, published by the Institute of Physics.
Abstracts due                 April 30, 1991 
Notification of acceptance    May 15, 1991 
Manuscripts due               November 7, 1991 

Due to space limitations, participation at the conference is by invitation. Abstracts, requests for invitations, and requests for additional information should be directed to the Foresight Institute, PO Box 61058, Palo Alto, CA 94306, USA. Tel 415-324-2490; fax 415-948-5649; electronic mail:
Current Foresight contact information
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More Market-Based Foresight

by Robin Hanson

Many people wrote to offer friendly criticism of Robin Hanson's "Market-Based Foresight" proposal, which we published in a previous issue (Foresight Update 10). Here he responds to a few such comments:

"One of the problems with your idea, as I see it, is that it allows a way for special interests to try to buy public policy decisions. Suppose the government is thinking about funding projects for the development of new energy sources, and wants to create a market for the question of whether or not (say) cheap fusion will be available within 10 years. The gas/electricity industry then has a vested interest in heavily buying up negative opinions of the issue, since such a program would later cut into their profits. They thus have the motive and means (more money than others are willing to invest, even if the odds are good) to...create a self-fulfilling prophesy...

All in all, a very intriguing proposal."
Jay Sipestein
Carnegie Mellon University
Hanson: Yes, it would be dangerous to decide to fund fusion based on bets about whether fusion power will be cheap in 10 years, since this will in part depend on whether fusion research is funded now. But a slight variation can help us to avoid such self-reinforcing prophesies. We could bet on the future price of fusion power conditional on the level of funding between now and then. (A conditional bet is "called off" if the condition is not met.) There would be different bets about different possible funding levels, and funders might decide to fund fusion only if the market predicted that the results with funding were sufficiently better than the results without funding.

The problem of harmful self-fulfilling prophecies (also called "moral hazard") is present but tolerable in most markets. Anyone can buy stock, though they might sell short the stock of some aspirin maker and then poison their capsules. Moral hazard can be avoided entirely if we stick to bets about unchangeable facts of nature, like the mass of the electron neutrino.

"It seems that in many cases neither a deadline nor a jury will be necessary. If the market is now more convinced than before that some statement is true, it is by itself an opportunity for the statement's supporters to benefit from their bets, and no official verifications are needed....One can also be allowed to withdraw all or a part of his stake at any time by [an equivalent of] betting against himself according to the current odds, and then taking away the money he has put for both sides--without affecting anyone else's interests. The presence of a jury is costly, complicates the situation, is unnecessary when the jury agrees with the market's opinion, and creates conflicts and public discontent when it doesn't. This mechanism by itself will hardly be sufficient for education on, or funding of, any given subject, and will have to be carefully integrated with other existing methods of work and coordinational entities.

But [your proposal] is a promising idea, and in my opinion is well worth working on..."
Alexander Chislenko
Cambridge, MA
Hanson: We do want to avoid the various costs of using judges that you mention, though if we do away with judges completely I fear a strategic bargaining game. A well financed person or group might ignore the evidence and just push the price on some claim in some direction and spend what it takes to hold it there. This strategy pays off if other bettors can't or won't hold out as long, and hence quit at a loss. A compromise is to create incentives for players to "settle out of court," so that in the absence of strategic behavior judges are not needed. For example, we might set the official judging date to be long after we expect the steady accumulation of evidence to naturally resolve the issue.

Yes, betting markets are not a panacea, and will need to co-exist with other related institutions.

"...the long-term nature of such bets' would necessarily require a group of similarly long-term investors. After all, the opportunity costs of such a bet would be significant, if one had to wait five years with funds in escrow for its resolution. Even longer-term bets would be more difficult...

I think your model is intriguing, and could solve many of the problems with today's 'court advisor' model of futurism."
Craig Hubley
Toronto, Canada
Hanson: Yes, there are problems with long-term investments, though not the ones usually imagined. Markets in bets that won't be officially settled for several decades can still have liquid markets which allow investors to enter or leave at any time, can offer as high an average rate of return as the stock market, and can offer daily price fluctuations similar to those in the stock market. The real long-term investment problem is again that some investors may think it would take the market too long time to come to its senses and reward their wise purchase, and so they don't bother to fight the crowd. All markets face this problem, allowing speculative bubbles to persist. So, yes, price movements over longer time scales may be less rational. But it's not clear that any alternative funding or consensus institution deals with this problem any better.

Most people react to my proposal by saying "interesting, but here are some problems." This was my reaction too, and most of my efforts have centered around identifying such problems and finding ways to deal with them.

Correction: In the article I claimed that "over the last six months alone, there is less than a one in 1010 chance of someone randomly winning [Piers Carbyn's] 25 bets a month at his over-than-80% success rate." The actual chance depends on how independent the bets in a single month are, and (now using the last fifteen months of data) is somewhere between one in 200 (total dependence) and one in 1060 (total independence).

Robin Hanson researches artificial intelligence and Bayesian statistics at NASA Ames, has master's degrees in physics and philosophy of science, and has done substantial work on hypertext publishing. To receive his longer paper on the above topic, send us a self-addressed stamped envelope (with 45 cents postage within the U.S.), or send electronic mail to

Table of Contents - Foresight Update 11

Markets inside Computers

The Agorics Project is building working markets operating entirely as object-oriented computer software, to test theories on how markets evolve. Based at the Center for the Study of Market Processes at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, the effort was originally inspired by a series of three papers written by Mark S. Miller and K. Eric Drexler. A few copies of these papers, donated by Mark Miller, are still available from Foresight; within the U.S., please send a large, self-addressed envelope with $2.36 postage. (Outside the U.S., try to include a donation that will roughly cover our postage costs.) Miller now serves as Co-director of the project, along with Prof. Don Lavoie. Graduate students aiding the project include Howard Baetjer, Kevin Lacobie, and Bill Tulloh. The project is now seeking additional funds to expand its work.

Those interested in the project can read about it in the Center's free newsletter, Praxis. Contact the Center at 703-323-3483, or online at (BITNET) or For the full story behind the Agorics Project, request the Spring 1990 issue of the Center's journal Market Process. In addition to two articles on evolutionary economics, this issue contains an article by Phillip K. Salin on the ecology of decisions, or how to improve our models of the decision-making process.

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We would like to give special thanks to Russell Mills, who has donated many, many hours of help on the design and layout of Update and other Foresight publications. Some assistance for Russ has been found thanks to Hilary Nelson, who did the layout on this issue. Special thanks also go to Bob Fleming, Cheri Kushner, and their company futheuristix for the generous donation of a Canon copier. This will make a big difference to our office operations.

Thanks to Hank Lederer for his database searches on NEXIS. Hank can no longer supply these, so we are looking for someone with access to NEXIS to run periodic searches on the word nanotechnology. Thanks also to those who volunteered to help with publication layout; we hope to take advantage of your generous offers.

Belated thanks to Felix Frayman for help in translating from Russian to English.

Thanks to the following for sending technical articles and media coverage; please keep these coming: Richard Cathcart, Giri Cherukuri, Jim Conyngham, Dick Crawford, Eric Dahlstrom, Donald J. Fears, Jaroslav Franta, W.C. Gaines, Alan Hald, Robin Hanson, Mark Haviland, Stan & Kiyomi Hutchings, Anthony L. Johnson, Spencer MacCallum, Joy Martin, Tom McKendree, Anthony Oberley, John Papiewski, Jack Powers, Alvin Steinberg, and Christian Talbert.

Table of Contents - Foresight Update 11

Foresight Requests

We will need volunteers to staff the Foresight Institute booth at the Space Development Conference. See the article in this issue for details. We are also looking for a volunteer to prepare an index for the proceedings of the First Foresight Conference on Nanotechnology.

From our "Thanks" column it's clear that many readers are already sending in articles, both technical and nontechnical. We'd like to make this more systematic for the technical articles, with volunteers agreeing to monitor specific journals. If you routinely look at one or more of the following and are willing to send us copies of relevant articles, please contact us: Angewandt Chemie, JACS, J. Appl. Phys., Appl. Phys Lett., Protein Engineering, J. Computational Chemistry, J. Molecular Electronics. As always, articles from other publications are welcome. We already monitor Science, Nature, and Science News. We'd also appreciate help from Japan in identifying relevant journals and obtaining abstracts in English of key articles.

Someone with routine access to NEXIS could help us by running periodic searches on the word nanotechnology.

We are in need of the following materials and help: a fax machine and a laser printer for the Macintosh. Office space in the Palo Alto area is needed as well. Volunteers with legal or fundraising experience are welcome. Note that donations of equipment or funds are tax-deductible in the U.S. as charitable contributions.

If you or your company can help with any of the above, please call us at 415-324-2490.

Table of Contents - Foresight Update 11

From Foresight Update 11, originally published 15 March 1991.

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