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Foresight Update 17

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

Foresight Update 17 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5


Taking Action: Making a Difference in Nanotechnology

by Chris Peterson

Despite all our differences -- in profession, nationality, age, and political views -- there's one perspective that unites all of the Foresight organization members: how far ahead into the future we look and care about, and how we go about solving problems. Planning and anticipating future events is a special skill and relates directly to individuals' ability to affect events in the future. How far ahead you look and plan is called your time horizon, and Foresight members have some of the longest time horizons around.

To see how that changes our actions, consider the employees in a corporation. Different kinds of jobs require different time horizons. While an assembly line worker may have a long time horizon, it's not required for the job. As one moves up the management hierarchy, each job requires that its holder look farther into the future on behalf of the organization, until finally those at the top are expected in some industries to have a picture in their minds of what will happen decades ahead and to position their companies to deal with it, whatever it may be.

And consider the opposite extreme: studies have shown that young people in very poor areas look ahead almost not at all, and have time horizons measured in hours. This lack of an ability to plan and take action for the future cripples their chance of success, and can lead to disaster when the results of risky behaviors aren't anticipated.

Having a long time horizon can correlate with a feeling of being able to influence events. This feeling makes sense, because the farther in advance an action is taken, the greater effect it can have by a given date. Those of us who influence nanotechnology development and policy now will have a tremendous effect compared to those who start years later. Foresight members are united in looking far ahead and taking actions now that -- we believe -- will have major positive effects as nanotechnology and other advanced technologies arrive.

How to solve problems

What else unites us, besides a belief in taking actions early, to maximize our effect? The other part of the Foresight perspective is a belief in solving problems using a systems approach: don't treat the symptoms, treat the cause.

Many people have a gut feeling that this is the right approach. The question is how effective each of us is at identifying the level at which to act. Here in the Foresight family of organizations, we've identfied two important ways to take action. For physical problems--diseases that can't be cured, environmental problems that can't be cleaned up or can't be prevented economically -- we advocate solutions at the most fundamental physical level: nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing. The Institute for Molecular Manufacturing, a Foresight organization, has taken on the task of pursuing this technical goal directly, through R&D. The Foresight Institute helps by educating researchers and potential funders of the technology.

But many of today's most difficult problems aren't physical; instead they're social and policy-driven. The powerful technologies anticipated by Foresight members, such as nanotechnology, raise thorny issues here: safety, war prevention, and ensuring personal freedom. We address these through the education efforts of the Foresight Insitute and the policy development work of the Center for Constitutional Issues in Technology. These challenges are more difficult to grapple with than the physical R&D needed to get atoms in the right place. But we know that without progress in these areas, developing nanotechnology will not solve the problems that we want to solve.

All these different efforts have in common the goal of solving a problem at the fundamental level, well in advance of when the general public becomes aware of the issues. This early action is critical, because by the time the media start debating these issues, powerful interest groups will have formed, each with its own short-term, narrow, and sometimes greedy perspective, preventing sensible discussion and development of good policy.

Do those of us with this perspective have a special responsibility to take action? I believe we do. The percentage of the population with the time and the background to be able to think clearly about the future is very small. If we don't act, no one will, until it's too late. Important debates won't happen, the groundwork for good decisions won't be laid in time, and what follows will be a mixture of bad decision-making and chaos. Those of us with the time and the skills to look ahead must do so, and those of us with financial resources have a special responsibility to make sure that funding doesn't overly constrain what can be done.

With that in mind, let's look at how Foresight members are making a difference today, and how you might consider participating.

First: the desire to act

Most new Foresight members come to us from reading one of the books on nanotechnology, such as Engines of Creation, Unbounding the Future, and others. After reading these books, we're inspired by a picture of a world worth working toward.

So our first question for the Foresight Institute upon joining is "What can I do, personally, to help make the future I just read about happen in my lifetime?" At the Foresight office and in the Foresight leadership, we've been hearing this question continuously since 1986 when Engines of Creation was first published.

It's an important question, but it's difficult to answer. I'll try to take a stab at it here.

The answer depends on the personal situation of the person asking it. It changes with your profession, location, income, level of motivation, and level of existing commitments -- the last of which perhaps being the most important factor. Another factor is whether you're more interested in promoting rapid development of nanotechnology and other advanced technologies, or in making sure that they are developed safely, or that they are made widely available, or that they are used promptly for a particular purpose, such as environmental protection, medical care, or relieving poverty.

Since Foresight members have such wide variations in both background and specific goals, there are many different answers to the question "how can I make a difference?" It would be impossible to discuss all the combinations here, so I'll try to pick the most common situations.

If what you want to give is time...

First let's look at ways of making a difference other than by contributing funds. Two critical factors here are skill set and time availability. For many young people who have not yet made career choices, the goal of participating technically has a strong attraction. This is a relatively simple case, and Foresight has a handout for them called "Studying Nanotechnology" which can help guide them through this process and into a R&D career in one of the enabling sciences and technologies. I often speak to students directly to help them select which path makes the most sense given their existing background and interests.

Another critical factor in making non-monetary contributions is location. Because the Foresight family of organizations is based here in the San Francisco Bay area, members here have a much better chance of being able to participate directly. We have Foresight members performing all kinds of tasks for our organizations: pro bono legal help, pro bono press relations, help with computer software and hardware, conference assistance including major at-meeting responsibilities, and writing for our various publications. But so many of these activities--in order to work well and at a low time cost to our other volunteers and staff--need to take place here in the Bay area. They also need to take place on a consistent, long term basis.

What kinds of non-monetary contributions can someone away from the Bay area provide to the effort? The one that perhaps makes the most sense is providing information. Foresight attempts to stay thoroughly up-to-date on all aspects of nanotechnology and its enabling sciences and technologies. This is a huge area where the information is dispersed among many different kinds of publications. Not only do we attempt to follow technical developments, but we also try to track media coverage and public opinion. And those of you who've read Engines of Creation know that Foresight's longer term interests include advanced software leading to machine intelligence. Following all these different areas without a great deal of active assistance from our membership would be impossible.

A few notes on what to send. If you can, please send us the original. It's best if you don't write on it, but if the date and name of the publication are not on the page you're sending, please do print that information on it neatly. Do send items even if you think it likely that someone else is doing so. We've found that the more popular a publication is, the more every single one of our members assumes that of course we must have seen it. This is an excellent way for us to miss important information in widely available publications.

If you get inspired to do so, it's always helpful to include a paragraph on the connection you see between the material and Foresight's goals. Do this especially if it might not be obvious to us. We try to thank everyone who sends information to us in the next Update.

Sending information is a great help, but perhaps the most important non-monetary contribution that every member of Foresight can make is this: each of us needs to think hard about who among our friends and acquaintances ought to be made more familiar with the ideas and goals of our organizations, and to take the time to introduce this information to them. Often this involves lending them a copy of the book that brought you into Foresight, and keeping after them until they fit reading this book into their busy schedule. Start with those friends and acquaintances who can do the most for our efforts.

If you have no time...

Most of you reading this article already have active careers in progress, so the idea of pursuing nanotechnology through technical work is not feasible, or doesn't fit your personal skill set. Probably you don't live in the Bay Area, which makes time contributions difficult. Most likely of all, you're living within a set of tight constraints. These can include a career--fulltime or quite possibly more than fulltime--and family responsibilities involving a spouse and sometimes children and aging parents who depend on you. Many Foresight members push themselves pretty hard at work, and when time needed for family is added in, it's clear that donating time to Foresight just isn't an option.

But just because our lives are so constrained doesn't mean we don't want to help. In fact, from speaking with many Foresight members, I know that being responsible for raising a family can make us feel even more urgently the need to take a stand and make a difference to our future.

So how do you handle this when your time is already overcommitted? You took the first step toward making a difference when you joined Foresight with a membership donation of $35. [Editor's note, 1999: current regular membership donation is $45.] That donation covers the cost of our sending you the Update and includes extra that we put toward making Foresight's goals a reality.

But Foresight's activities and success would be small if we had to sustain our efforts based on the minimal donations alone. A good percentage of our members give at a higher level than the bare minimum. When you give at the $50, $100, $250, or $500 membership level, you give Foresight a much greater ability to make things happen.

But, to the giver, giving at these higher levels sometimes doesn't feel much different from joining at the minimum level. A couple of years ago the Foresight leadership realized that we have a tremendously motivated membership who are looking for ways to get involved and make a commitment -- including substantial funds -- but feel the need for a more structured and rewarding way to participate. We had long been familiar with a program at the Space Studies Institute -- the Senior Associate Program -- which challenges members to make a five-year commitment to donate at a certain high level every year.

Like Foresight, SSI has members who are intensely motivated, and they responded strongly to this program. We realized that the Foresight membership was probably waiting for something like this program -- a higher level of giving for a higher level of involvement. Senior Associates pledge $250, $500, or $1000 annually for five years.

The new program was kicked off at the 1992 nanotechnology conference. Both the Foresight Institute and the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing began accepting Senior Associates. Members came forward based on their individual interests and selected the organization to which they wished to make a commitment. Some members participate in both, showing a deep understanding of the goals of the Foresight effort.

Because it's an organized program, Foresight and IMM are able to more easily identify these significant donors and serve their needs. At this year's conference, at a special Senior Associates reception on October 15, the Senior Associates of both organizations convened for the first time along with the Foresight leadership. We knew it would be a special event, and those who were there can tell you what it meant to them. I know it meant a lot to me to meet others who share the same goals for our future.

The decision to become a Senior Associate is a real commitment. It means you understand and support the nanotechnology effort, and want to make a sustained difference for the better. One way to think about this commitment is to look at the various issues and causes that you care about, and have probably given to in the past. Consider how each one will be affected by the changes being addressed by Foresight organizations. Nanotechnology will go to the heart of solving today's environmental and medical problems, and will radically change our prospects for personal freedom, and for ambitious goals such as space development and ending poverty.

As a person with a long time horizon and a systems perspective--a thinker--you may well decide that the way to approach these problems is by supporting Foresight and the Foresight family of organizations, by becoming a Senior Associate.

So when we mail to you an invitation to become a Senior Associate, or call you on the phone to talk about the idea, I hope you'll respond strongly and join now. You'll be joining a very special group of people, working toward a very special goal.

Chris Peterson serves on the Board of Directors of the Foresight Institute. Members wishing to become Senior Associates should call her at 650-917-1121.

Foresight Update 17 - Table of Contents


Upcoming Events

Research Directors Conference: Designing the Future: Materials Research and Nanotechnology at Caltech, Feb. 3-4, 1994, Pasadena, CA. California Institute of Technology, tel 818-395-6599, fax 818-578-0838.

EM2000 Symposium: Materials Technology on the Nano-scale in Year 2000, Feb. 27-Mar. 3, 1994, San Francisco. Sponsored by TMS (Minerals, Metals, and Materials Society), AIME. Includes molecular nanotechnology Feb. 28. TMS, tel 412-776-9042, fax 412-776-3770.

Ultimate Limits of Fabrication and Measurement, NATO Advanced Research Workshop, April 5-8, 1994, Cambridge, England. Includes molecular manufacturing, STM manipulation, microsensors, self-assembly. Dr. Ch. Gerber, IBM Zurich, Sumerstr. 4, CH-8803 Rschlikon, Switzerland.

Oak Ridge Conference: Nanotechnology: the Challenge of Microminiature Analysis, April 14-15, 1994. Tampa, FL. Association for Clinical Chemistry, tel 800-892-1400, fax 202-887-5093.

Nanofabrication and Biosystems, May 8-12, 1994. Kona, Hawaii. Cosponsors NSF, NIH. Includes self-assembly of biological materials as target for exploitation by materials scientists and engineers. Engineering Foundation, tel 212-705-7836, fax 212-705-7441.

Ordered Molecular & Nanoscale Electronics, June 5-10, 1994. Kona, Hawaii. Molecular electronics, molecular manipulation, spontaneous assembly, single-electron devices. Engineering Foundation, tel 212-705-7836, fax 212-705-7441.

Simulation for Molecular Nanotechnology & Molecular Manufacturing, a track at the Summer Computer Simulation Conference, Society for Computer Simulation, July 18-20, 1994, San Diego, CA. Submission deadline extended to Jan. 10. Conference adminstrator Dennis Baker, tel 410-787-3736; track organizer Tom McKendree, tel 714-374-2081, email

International Conference on Molecular Electronics and Biocomputing, Sept. 25-30, 1994, Goa, India. International Society for Molecular Electronics and Biocomputing. Biomimetic, supramolecular, self-assembly processes; proximal probes (STM, AFM); molecular sensors; nanomanipulation. Dr. R. Phadke, fax +91-22-215-2110, email

Foresight Update 17 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5

From Foresight Update 17, originally published 15 December 1993.

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