Foresight Update 29 (page 2)
A publication of the Foresight Institute
Inside Foresight: Paradigm Shift in Progress
issue of Update goes to press, we've received a June 4 media advisory
from the National Science Foundation, forwarded by Senior Associate Richard
Smith, about a lecture on June 16:
Nobel Laureate Eyes Nanoscale Manufacturing
More information about the lecture and Rohrer is available
on the Web.
In New Engineering Lecture Series
Nobel Laureate Heinrich Rohrer, inventor of the scanning tunneling microscope,
will inaugurate a new National Science Foundation engineering lecture series
with a talk titled "The Nanometer Age: Challenges and Chances."
Rohrer will discuss recent advances in precision nanoscale science and technology,
which will permit building things molecule by molecule and heralding a class
of made-to-order materials with streamlined structures and properties. Ultra
precise medical instruments could permit surgeons to operate on individual
cells. Materials dozens of times stronger than steel of the same weight
could be produced. The ability to manipulate molecules would greatly contribute
to an emerging field of science that explores how to arrange conditions
so that atoms spontaneously assemble into specific molecular structures.
Rohrer and Gerd Binnig received the King Faisal Prize and the Hewlett Packard
Europhysics Prize in 1984, and the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1986. Rohrer
was inducted into the US National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1994. He joined
IBM's Zurich research laboratory in 1963.
As Richard commented, "This is all getting to be frighteningly mainstream!
Methinks the paradigm shift has begun."
It has indeed. Consider the current list of cosponsors for this fall's Fifth
Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology:
This does looks very "mainstream." The increasing frequency of
these kinds of endorsements is making Foresight's leadership wonder whether
it's time to move toward taking on more difficult issues and more advanced
(i.e., less popular) positions on those issues.
- Argonne Mathematics and Computer Science Division
- Caltech Materials and Process Simulation Center
- Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science
- Elba Foundation (Italy)
- Institute for Molecular Manufacturing
- Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory NERSC
- Molecular Graphics Society of the Americas
- NASA Ames Numerical Aerospace Simulation Systems Division
- Ohio Supercomputer Center
- Rice University Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology
- Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology Dept. of Computer Science
- San Diego Supercomputer Center
- Stanford University Dept. of Materials Science and Engineering
- USC Molecular Robotics Lab
- University of Wisconsin-Madison
- Washington University Lab. for the Study of Novel Carbon Materials
When Foresight started in 1986, we hoped to be able to jump right into discussions
of what nanotechnology and other powerful coming technologies will mean
for individuals, organizations, and nations. We wanted to consider potential
negative scenarios and how they might be avoided through foresighted actions
taken in advance.
But the time was not ripe for these kinds of discussions. Because the scientific
community was not yet aware of--much less accepting of-- the concept of
molecular nanotechnology, those who tried to discuss policy based on these
concepts found it almost impossible. The policy community must turn to scientists
and technologists for guidance on technical questions; without that support,
policy progress can't be made.
So Foresight backed off from our original strategy, focusing instead on
educating the technical community on nanotechnology.
It looks as though this paradigm shift is now well advanced. When the conservative
NSF uses ideas such as "building things molecule by molecule,"
"made-to-order materials," and cell repair, we can be fairly sure
that our first task is basically completed.
What does this mean for Foresight and its sister organizations, Institute
for Molecular Manufacturing and Center for Constitutional Issues in
Technology? IMM's charter and strategy is not affected: conduct nanotechnology
R&D, building off its strength in computational nanotechnology. CCIT's
charter of public policy development is no longer premature--it can move
forward. And Foresight can now revert to its original task of discussing
the difficult issues raised by coming technologies, focusing on nanotechnology,
but increasingly including others as well, since the various technologies
What this means is that the original analysis of Foresight's ideas--"sounds
like science fiction"--will be heard again. As Gayle Pergamit and I
explained in a talk we gave at San Francisco's Exploratorium for HardWired,
even the most realistic technology scenarios, when projected 30 years into
the future, do in fact sound like science fiction.
And we'll continue to have difficulties with the less-careful segments of
the media. Our run-in with Scientific
American may flare up again--though their web coverage is increasingly
friendly of late. Peculiar quotes will still appear, such as the one (mis)attributed
to me by the New York Times wire service, which used the word
"forever" with respect to human lifespan. (In fact, it was an
audience member at the Exploratorium who suggested this; Gayle and I corrected
it, as shown in the videotape.)
But progress can be expected here too, as our Web Enhancement Project advances
and is used for our upcoming Computer Security Debate. Great progress is
being made on these, in large part due to the work of Terry Stanley, who
will be developing ways of better visualizing our various debates. For more
on the four-way connection between nanotechnology, computer security, web
enhancement, and improved media quality, see my
column in Update 27 and ongoing progress
reports on the web.
1997 Senior Associate Gathering
In early May we had a "mini-Gathering" for the Foresight, IMM
and CCIT Senior Associates. The reason
for this modest characterization is that we had just had our annual Gathering
last November, and this event in May was a transitional meeting to our
new spring schedule--we expect to have these annual Senior Associate meetings
in the spring from now on to avoid conflicting with the fall technical conferences.
We expected that not many people would attend. Instead we got about fifty,
which was an ideal size for what turned into an educational weekend party
Although these Gatherings are off-the-record to encourage frank exchange
of views and discussion of new companies, we do have a general
schedule up on the Web, and from that you'll see that we heard about
Jim Von Ehr's nanotechnology startup Zyvex; we heard from Artificial Intelligence
pioneer and Foresight advisor Marvin Minsky; we heard about nanotechnology
in space from Tom McKendree, and at NASA Ames from Al Globus and Deepak
Srivastava, life extension issues from Thomas Landsberger and, of course,
some technical updates from Eric Drexler and Ralph Merkle, as well as quite
a few other topics, including a presentation on "Radical High-tech
Environmentalism" by yours truly. (Editor's Note: see below for a more
detailed report on the Gathering.)
The real purpose of these events, however, is not only technical discussion
but also the networking that goes on. There is quite a bit of discussion
regarding employment and funding of new companies, and that certainly is
one of the main purposes of these events from the Senior Associates' point
We also got a new project off the ground at the Gathering: the construction
of a physical model using CPK models of the fine-motion
controller modeled for IMM by Eric Drexler. CPK models can be expensive;
however, because so many companies are moving from physical models to computational
models, we believe that we should--in theory--be able to find these items
as a donation. There must be many sets that are no longer in use. So if
you know of either a university or, more likely perhaps, a pharmaceutical
company that is no longer using their CPK models, we're looking for donations
of these space-filling atomic models. Eventually these will be made into
a model of the fine-motion controller, for which we will need approximately
3000 atoms from the CPK model sets. If you know of CPK models that might
be donated, please contact us at the office.
Hypertext Pioneer Wins Major Technology Prize
One of Foresight's favorite Silicon Valley inventors is Doug Engelbart,
formerly of SRI, now of Bootstrap Institute. Doug has many inventions to
his credit, including the computer mouse, but what we've always admired
most is his foresighted early work on hypertext systems, including Augment.
So we were extremely pleased to hear recently that Doug was awarded the
Lemelson-MIT Prize, the single largest cash prize ($500,000) given for American
invention and innovation.
Doug also looks forward to nanotechnology: at the award ceremony, he said
"In 20 or 30 years, you'll be able to hold in your hand as much computing
knowledge as exists now in the whole city, or even the whole world."
Congratulations to Doug--we couldn't have made a better selection ourselves
for this prestigious prize. Join us in this wish by visiting the Bootstrap
Institute on the Web and seeing what Doug is inventing today.
Web Hardware Matching Fund Needs $500
Those of you who keep up on news on the Foresight web site know that there
has been a new matching fund established.
Foresight is moving heavily into having advanced graphics on our web site,
and working with a company called E-Spaces
has helped us locate some very reasonably-priced web talent. However, there
is a piece of hardware involved: we need a new computer for one of our web
We're already three-quarters of the way to our goal, but we need the remaining
$500 to complete the match. Please give us a call at the office at 415-917-1122
or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to help
on this project. I can tell you that the results for the Foresight web site
should be quite spectacular in terms of animated molecular machine graphics,
which are much more effective than words or still-shot graphics at getting
across, to both technical and non-technical people, what it is that molecular
manufacturing is going to be all about.
Back at the office
Those of you who keep up with Foresight's web site are aware that our long-time
office manager, Judy Hill, is leaving us. She is moving on to write a book,
having worked here for two years longer than she meant to (or needed to).
While we wish she would stay, we understand how it is when there's a book
that needs to be born. Foresight's success to date is largely attributable
to Judy. No words are enough to thank her; we will miss her more than we
There's only one silver lining to this cloud. Against all expectations,
we've located someone to step in and try to fill Judy's shoes. Tanya Jones,
whom some of you may know from Alcor Life
Extension Foundation, joins us starting next week. Tanya's broad background,
from her coursework in statistics, to working for a Senator, to her ongoing
MBA training, make her well-qualified to make major contributions to Foresight/IMM/CCIT.
Elaine Tschorn and I will need all her help once Judy departs.
Judy Hill (left) and Tanya Jones
If you call soon, you can say good-bye to Judy, wish her well, and get
her to introduce you to Tanya.
Chris Peterson is Executive Director
of Foresight Institute.
Table of Contents - Foresight
Web Enhancement Project Moving Forward
In Update 27
we described HyperWave, a web-based software program that appeared to fulfill
all the requirements Foresight has been trying to fill for years: fine-grained,
extrinsic (i.e. third party), bidirectional links in hypertext publishing.
We've run into an unexpected glitch with HyperWave. It does indeed have
fine-grained, extrinsic, bidirectional links; however, these links are not
visible in the original document. Instead, alongside the original "target"
document, the reader is shown a list of URLs to visit. If the reader follows
one of that list of coarse-grained extrinsic links to the commenting document,
and then follows links back from that commenting document to the target
document, then at that time the fine-grained nature of the commenting
links becomes apparent. That is, the commented-on section is highlighted
in the target document when visited from the commenting document. This may
sound a bit confusing, but the upshot of it all is that when you're looking
at a document and you want to see embedded commenting links-they aren't
Our plans had included joining the Hyper-G Consortium in order to obtain
the source code, so that we could fix any glitches that came up, such as
this one. However, in the last few months the open Hyper-G code has been
commercialized into HyperWave and source code can no longer be obtained,
so our plans to alter it will no longer work.
One of IMM's Senior Associates, Dave Forrest, is communicating with the
HyperWave company to see whether this needed feature can be added. However,
we have very little influence with this company, and we can't depend on
this as a solution.
When we hit this roadblock with HyperWave, we looked back at our previous
optionsthe options we considered prior to selecting HyperWave as our
first choiceand found that our preferred solution involved extending
some public domain annotation code originally written by Wayne
Gramlich. The term annotation is frequently used to describe
what we've been calling extrinsic links or third-party comments.
Although Wayne now works for a startup company and cannot take the project
further other than as an advisor, Foresight is fortunate to have located
a programmer who is very interested in completing this project, and who
is available full-time and immediately. This is Terry Stanley, who has a
long-time interest in argumentation visualization. So not only do we expect
that Wayne's code will be given a good front-end and installed on our server,
but also that Terry will continue to develop this code to make some really
useful and unique graphical methods for argumentation visualization. This
will be of great use when we get into having real debates and find ourselves
needing all the support we can get in figuring out difficult, complex issues.
Special thanks to Ka-Ping Yee, whom some of you met at the recent Senior
Associate Gathering, for handling systems administration for the project.
Web Enhancement is now moving faststay
tuned for further news.
Table of Contents - Foresight Update
Senior Associates Gather to Discuss Long-Term
Consequences & Near-Term Ventures
More than 50 Senior Associates of
Foresight and IMM gathered May 2-4 at the Palo Alto Holiday Inn for what
had originally been advertised as an experimental "Mini-Gathering".
Because Senior Associate Gatherings are "off the record", only
a portion of what was presented can be summarized here.
Foresight Chairman and IMM Research Fellow Eric Drexler opened the Gathering
Saturday morning by pointing to the "crisis in foresight" that
exists today in our society as more researchers and other observers become
convinced that nanotechnology is feasible, but nevertheless remain focused
on short-term objectives and ignore the longer-term consequences of nanotechnology
for society and for the lives of individuals. The increasing acceptance
of nanotechnology as a legitimate mainstream research topic now allows IMM
and Foresight to move the intellectual frontier "further west,"
he said. Instead of studying the next steps in the development of molecular
systems technology and looking for intermediate technological payoffs, IMM
can focus clearly on the long term objective of defining what systems to
build once better tools for positional chemical synthesis are available.
Instead of defending the feasibility of molecular manufacturing, Foresight
can now speak more clearly about the profound changes that molecular manufacturing
will bring. Specific examples of the latter cited by Dr. Drexler include
radically improving the environment, manufacturing and living in space more
cheaply than on Earth, and biostasis of currently terminal patients by cryogenic
preservation in the expectation of vastly improved medical services in the
A consequence of the current lack of foresight is that people contemplate
spending hundreds of billions of dollars to lower CO2 levels
in the atmosphere, and agonize over the necessity of making "difficult
medical choices", all because they ignore the profound changes to be
brought by the advent of molecular manufacturing, perhaps 20 or so years
from now. Dr. Drexler emphasized the necessity, when discussing such topics,
of making explicit the time horizon that is being considered. Many critics
of the proposition that nanotechnology will bring profound changes automatically
assume a 5 to 10-year horizon for considering the future. In noting that
there has been very little negative press about nanotechnology since last
year's Web-based debate with Scientific
American, Dr. Drexler concluded that very few critics now argue
that molecular nanotechnology is impossible, but he encouraged the search
for critics to identify specific challenges in developing molecular nanotechnology
so that sufficient thought is applied to the problems of designing fault-tolerant
complex systems. (Editor's note: see page 13 for a report on a search for
Dr. Ralph Merkle of Xerox PARC described his recent work to design the complete
"intermediary metabolism" of a proposed simple hydrocarbon assembler.
The goal: to define a set of molecular tools (and the reactions each tool
would conduct) such that a simple organic feedstock molecule could be converted
by these reactions to manufacture various stiff hydrocarbons, including
the complete set of tools used, producing more copies of the tools than
are consumed in the process. This proposal uses butadiyne (C4H2)
as the feedstock molecule, a buckytube as the binding site for the butadiyne,
"vitamins" of silicon, tin, and transition metals for catalysis,
and tools for hydrogen abstraction, for hydrogen deposition, for forming
radicals on carbon, silicon, and tin atoms, and for inserting carbenes and
carbon dimers. It is assumed that positional control of these tools is available,
and that the reactions occur either in a vacuum or in a noble gas atmosphere.
Dr. Merkle concluded that a hydrocarbon assembler with a simple intermediary
metabolism as described should be feasible, but that more detailed calculations
(including ab initio quantum chemical modeling and molecular dynamics)
will be necessary to make sure that the proposed reactions will all work.
Further, the design and manufacture of tools small enough to position several
reactive molecular species in the proper relative orientations remains a
challenge. A draft
paper explaining Dr. Merkle's proposal in detail is available at his
Web site. Additional information and background is available in Merkle's
article "It's a small, small, small, small world".
After lunch, the focus shifted to current entrepreneurial ventures. Considerable
excitement greeted Jim Von Ehr's announcement that he had founded Zyvex,
the first molecular nanotechnology development company, with the mission
to develop the first assembler. (See accompanying
story for details.)
Philippe Van Nedervelde outlined his ideas, plans and available assets for
EUTACTIX, his own nanotech start-up which is presently in the early stages
of formation. EUTACTIX's goal is to develop and market high-quality yet
affordable nanotechnology tools and solutions via a suitable stepping stone:
the sales of very competitively priced quality SPMs. Philippe is presently
scouting for further partners and investors for this venture. He can be
reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at 32+14-88-18-63.
Turning from technology to society, Dave Krieger discussed "Technopolitics
and the 'California Ideology'". He explored reasons why the Internet
is more Libertarian than society as a whole, and speculated that the economics
of molecular manufacturing will be similar to the economics of computing
in that all levels of society will benefit. Chris Peterson elaborated upon
the scenario in which molecular nanotechnology provides increasing wealth
and cheap access to space so that increasingly the Earth will be reserved
to support a beautiful and restored environment. She encouraged the audience,
whenever possible, to debunk the mistaken notion that high-tech can mean
dirty tech. Ed Niehaus discussed public opinion about nanotechnology, and
how Foresight's approach towards informing the public has evolved over the
past 10 years. It was suggested to make the topic more personal by publicizing
the stories of the people in the field, and to make movies that depict a
positive future arising from nanotechnology.
To close the first full day of the Gathering, the Senior Associates were
treated to a talk by Marvin Minsky that touched on most of the significant
areas of the intellectual universe. Since adequately summarizing this talk
is impossible, only a few points made by Prof. Minsky are listed here:
Sunday morning Tom McKendree presented a portion of his study of the potential
applications of molecular nanotechnology to the industrialization of space,
discussing the advantages and limitations of solar sails and rotating tethers,
and pointing out that major advantages offered by molecular nanotechnology
include the bootstrapping made possible by self-replication, and the importance
of self-repair in the high radiation environment of space.
- The deaths of Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan have left a major social
need unfilled since there was no #3 explainer of science and defender of
rationality to debunk the non-critical thinking rampant in our society.
- Students should choose to major in math rather than in computer science
because the half-life for knowledge in computer science is only about four
- To improve performance, computers need to be designed around three
to five knowledge representations that they can continuously compare, rather
than be committed to one given representation.
Foresight and IMM Webmaster Jim Lewis discussed nanotechnology on the Web,
and noted that traffic to Foresight's Web site
has increased three-fold over the past year, and traffic to IMM's
Web site has increased more than 12-fold (starting from a much lower
base). After discussing the current Web sites, attention turned to plans
to enhance the Web to make it into a true hypertext publishing system. Terry
Stanley presented Foresight's current plans for the Web Enhancement Project
based upon annotator software developed by Wayne Gramlich to enhance existing
server and browser software. These plans
are elaborated in articles on Foresight's Web site.
After another superb buffet brunch, Al Globus and Deepak Srivastava conveyed
the excitement of the increasing commitment of NASA to molecular nanotechnology,
particularly at the NAS Computational Molecular Nanotechnology Group, where
new postdoctoral positions in both computational and experimental nanotechnology
are available. They also described their recent work on "Molecular
Dynamics Simulation of Carbon Nanotube Based Gears." More
information is available on the Web.
Turning from near-term progress to the implications of long-term prospects,
Thomas Landsberger shared his experience of the deep-seated fears that many
people have upon first hearing that molecular nanotechnology will lead to
significant life extension. Many people worry about how long they will have
to work if they live very long lives, and about the large increase in population
that might result. An aspect of longevity to emphasize is that people will
live with the consequences of their actions for much longer, and that therefore
much greater foresight is called for. Chip Morningstar addressed one of
the difficulties faced by those trying to rationally discuss the profound
changes to be brought by molecular nanotechnology: that "postmodernist"
scholars in the humanities appear to judge arguments in terms of cleverness
and politics, denying the existence of objective analysis of reality. He
has written an essay
about this topic available on the Web.
The last topic on the agenda was computer security. Dean Tribble noted that
molecular nanotechnology will require very reliable software to control
very complex systems. With today's software, such systems would crash, be
insecure, and be penetrable. After establishing that intuition about security
in the physical world is not applicable to cyberspace, Tribble briefly discussed
some of the issues to be faced in making secure operating systems, leading
Gayle Pergamit to comment that perhaps the major problems on the way to
molecular nanotechnology will lie in the software, not the hardware development.
Jim Lewis is a Forsesight and IMM Senior Associate and Webmaster for
Foresight and IMM.
See next page for pictures from the
Table of Contents - Foresight Update
From Foresight Update 29, originally published 30
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