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Foresight Update 12 (page 5)

A publication of the Foresight Institute

Table of Contents - Foresight Update 12

Nanotechnology from MIT Press

by BC Crandall

Many Foresight members and others have asked when the proceedings from the First Foresight Conference on Nanotechnology will be available. We are happy to announce that the proceedings are scheduled to be published by MIT Press by the end of 1991. The book will be produced in hardcover with nearly 100 illustrations and several color plates. Production costs will determine the final price, but the Press hopes to make the volume available for $35. (Those familiar with the high prices common for hardcover science books will recognize that this is an excellent price.)

The working title is Nanotechnology: The First Foresight Conference. James Lewis and I are the editors. Dr. Lewis brought the project from its initial stage (a set of taped lectures) to a coherent draft that could be sent to prospective publishers. Then the manuscript came to me for negotiations with publishers, and the final rounds of editing and production. We were gratified by the responses from potential publishers: many were interested in the topic, and the final decision on which publisher to select was a difficult one.

The volume consists of papers based on the presentations made at the conference, two panel discussions, and two historical appendices. The material covers a wide range of subjects relevant to nanotechnology:

Part I: Introduction to Nanotechnology

Part II: Molecular Systems Engineering

Part III: Related Technologies

Part IV: Implications


This will be the first technical book available on the topic, and we hope that you will encourage your local and university libraries to order a copy when it becomes available. (If they can't, please consider donating one.) Over half of the profits generated by this volume will directly further the work of the Foresight Institute.

The conference was hosted by Stanford University's Department of Computer Science and co-sponsored (with the Foresight Institute) by Global Business Network.

BC Crandall is also editing a book on applications, entitled Nanotechnology and the Culture of Abundance.

[Editor's note: The publication of this book was announced in Update 15; copies can be ordered using the Foresight Book Order Form.]

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Books of Note

Books are listed in increasing order of specialization and reading challenge. Your suggestions are welcome. And remember, if a book's price looks too high, your library should be able to get it through interdepartmental loan.--Editor

Hardball: How Politics is Played, Told by One Who Knows the Game, by Christopher Matthews, Harper & Row, 1989, softcover, $8.95. As nanotechnology approaches funding and moves toward policy formulation, we'll need to understand how Washington works. Here's the straight (and entertaining) story.

The Art of the Long View, by Peter Schwartz, Doubleday, 1991, hardcover, $20. Superb guide to how to look ahead using scenario planning, by the president of Global Business Network. To be reviewed in a later issue.

The Magic Machine: a Handbook of Computer Sorcery, by A.K. Dewdney, W.H. Freeman, 1990, softcover, $15.95. A collection of his columns from Scientific American, including one on nanocomputers.

Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference on Scanning Tunneling Microscopy/Spectroscopy and First International Conference on Nanometer Scale Science and Technology, eds. Richard J. Colton et al, American Institute of Physics, 1991, hardcover. Same as the 1991 Mar/Apr Journal of the Vacuum Science and Technology B, which is much easier to find. An excellent collection of recent proximal probe experimental work. Includes a proposal for a protoassembler (on the path to molecular nanotechnology): "Molecular tip arrays for molecular imaging and nanofabrication" by Drexler.

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Cornell Course in Nanotechnology

Prof. Dean Taylor will be teaching a class in nanotechnology at Cornell University this fall. The course will be offered in the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering School and will be taught at a level appropriate for seniors and master's degree candidates. Taylor plans to use the latest draft of the book Molecular Nanotechnology: Principles of Molecular Machines and Computation (Eric Drexler, in progress for 1992 publication) as a textbook.

Taylor reports: "I don't know if anyone from outside the School will want to take the course, but generally anyone with a technical background will be welcome. We will take a very strong analytical approach to the subject much as Eric does in his upcoming book. This is not a Scientific American survey course of topics in the area, but instead is intended to introduce students to the area by completing appropriate analytical problems. The course is intended to lead to a project which will involve questions of design of nanomechanical devices. I think that the Cornell National Supercomputer Facility will make a reasonable amount of cycles available so the students can undertake modeling of some complex structures.

"Obviously this course is new, and I will be developing the direction, material, examples, and assignments as we go."

For further information, contact: Prof. D. L. Taylor, Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Cornell University, 219 Upson Hall, Ithaca, NY14853; tel (607) 255-0990; email

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

Nanotechnology would be very good and very bad for the idea of human settlements not on a planetary surface [described in The High Frontier by Gerard K. O'Neill]. Specifically, it makes the concept both possible and unnecessary.

Nanotechnology should make O'Neill's idea feasible by making construction of extraterrestrial settlements far cheaper than they otherwise would be. This is important, because high cost is probably the most important impediment to the realization of extraterrestrial settlement. Nanotechnology should also help by making it feasible to have a completely closed ecology with molecular machines instead of biological organisms.

It seems to me that nanotechnology would also destroy most of the rationale for space settlements. The primary justification put forward by O'Neill et al. was to build solar energy satellites to satisfy Earth's electricity needs. The development of nanotechnology should make it possible to obtain considerable amounts of energy at low cost with ground-based solar energy or geothermal energy. The manufacture of items in space will also disappear as a rationale for the settlement or industrialization of space. Yet another reason for space colonization was to remove polluting industries from Earth. This was a weak reason from the beginning; it would be cheaper to improve pollution control technology. But with nanotechnology, this reason disappears. Manufacturing with nanotechnology is likely to be virtually pollution-free.

It is quite possible that I am being too pessimistic. There may be other reasons for extraterrestrial settlement that I have not considered...

John W. Martin
Hayward, CA

You are right to point out that many of the earlier strategies for making space industrialization into a paying proposition will be made obsolete once molecular manufacturing is in place. However, solar power satellites (and so forth) were regarded as short-term tactics in the long-term strategy of space settlement. The primary motivations have not changed: space resources exist, and life expands to take advantage of unused resources. Further, the fate of the dinosaurs shows that it would be unwise to restrict all the diversity of today's biosphere to one vulnerable planetary surface. Nanotechnology should lower costs to the point that we can afford to put our eggs in more than one basket. See the article elsewhere in this issue on the National Space Society's conference coverage of nanotechnology.--Editor

On the active shield concept outlined in Engines of Creation:

The active shield is somewhat naive because even if such a shield were developed it could in certain circumstances be breached, especially by a militarily-minded opponent. Also the idea that each country or culture can have its own shield is not necessarily a good idea, as it's important for other countries and organizations to be able to "interfere" to protect against human rights abuses, etc. Interference, for genuinely justifiable reasons of course, is vital to the progress of mankind, as can be seen throughout history.

Keith P. Byrne
Dublin, Ireland

The question of how to both enable adequate defenses and still protect human rights will become increasingly difficult as military technologies advance. Imagine the recent Gulf War with nanotechnology-based weapons on both sides, or on only the wrong side. This is the sort of complex issue we plan to explore in greater detail when adequate hypertext discussion software becomes available, perhaps this year.--Editor

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Write to Foresight

One of Foresight's main goals is to communicate the concepts of nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing to members of various groups, from scientists to students. You can help us refine these explanations: How do the people you know generally react to these ideas? Please write us and describe your experiences explaining nanotechnology to others. Which ideas are easy to get across and which are difficult? Which examples and explanations are most effective? How do these depend on the listener's background? Please describe any problems you've encountered. And, last, please tell us a bit about yourself. Send to Foresight Institute, Attn: Conversations, PO Box 61058, Palo Alto, CA 94306; or email to

[Editor's note: Foresight's current email address is]

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Foresight Policy

The Foresight Institute aims to help society prepare for new and future technologies, such as nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and large-scale space development, by: Foresight has a special interest in nanotechnology: at this early stage, it receives relatively little attention (considering its importance), giving even a small effort great leverage. We believe certain basic considerations must guide policy:

Nanotechnology will let us control the structure of matter--but who will control nanotechnology? The chief danger isn't a great accident, but a great abuse of power. In a competitive world, nanotechnology will surely be developed; if we are to guide its use, it must be developed by groups within our political reach. To keep it from being developed in military secrecy, either here or abroad, we must emphasize its value in medicine, in the economy, and in restoring the environment. Nanotechnology must be developed openly to serve the general welfare.

[Editor's note: See current statement of Foresight Institute Purpose and Policy]

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Foresight thanks Dave Kilbridge for converting Update 12 to html for this web page.

From Foresight Update 12, originally published 1 August 1991.

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