Foresight Update 20
A publication of the Foresight Institute
Review: Future Quest on Nanotechnology
by Gayle Pergamit
Gayle Pergamit, co-author of Unbounding the Future,
gives us her viewpoint on a recent success in explaining
nanotechnology to a general audience.
In a blazing half-hour, they mix Nobel Laureates with stand-up
comics, accurate STM images and flame-breathing 1950s sci fi
movie monsters, lucid scientific and business explanations with
movie clips from Terminator II...and somehow manage to
provide a highly accurate, understandable, scientifically
precise, amazingly complete explanation of nanotechnology: its
history, current work, potential products, promises, and perils.
In its one-of-a-kind style, it's Future Quest. The half-hour
whirlwind future-looking PBS television show aired its
nanotechnology segment during November 1994.
"The science community appreciates nanotechnology,"
said producer Kathleen French. "We wanted to bring the story
to the nontechnical audience. Our goal is making the science
How well did the nanotechnology story succeed? "It generated
very, very strong interest," said French. The two hundred
plus requests per month she receives for videotapes of the series
come from places as diverse as--in the case of the nanotechnology
show--schools, the Air Force, entrepreneurs, the Navy, filmmakers
George Lucas and Leonard Nimoy, and Wall Street brokers.
"It's one of the most popular shows we've done."
is your bedtime reading, Future Quest will not add to your
knowledge of nanotechnology. But faced with the task of
accurately introducing complex scientific concepts and
implications to a nontechnical audience, Future Quest does the
job beautifully. And how intellectually intimidated can anyone be
watching the scene where an enthusiastic fifth grader explains
nanotechnology to his classmates?
Future Quest's trademarks include a wry sense of humor, a real
commitment to scientific accuracy, and rapid-fire, creative
visual effects. According to French, its aim is to combine the
scientific accuracy of PBS with the rock & roll and comedy of
MTV and Fox. Geared for the young contemporary viewer, the humor
in the visual clips takes the intimidation out of high tech for
the non-technical. Using comedians as commentators provides
useful insights, and, says French, "voices what the audience
is thinking." It certainly helps avoid the possibilities of
pompous prognosticating. The use of self-important 1950s Space
Age black-and-white footage often serves as a whimsical reminder,
says series Senior Science Advisor Timothy Ferris, "of how
hard it is to predict the future."
With cartoon and film stock footage, flashy bits taken from old
commercials, and their own special effects sequences,
FutureQuesters create not just models of technical processes, but
also visual metaphors and analogies that convey complex concepts
in a visual flash and make "editorial comments" along
with the accurate technical content. Their custom look emerged
from a problem: no money. "It started as a limitation,"
French recalls. "On a PBS budget, you have to be very
creative. So we put a team of five funny, fun people searching
full time through major film libraries." Sifting through
cartoon archives and libraries of foreign commercials, they
emerged with visual treasures that can look as if they were
created specifically to describe nanotechnology. Two cartoon
clips stand out: one of Lilliputians carrying the massive
Gulliver and another 1930s style cartoon in which hordes of ants
form themselves into a single machine to convey the idea of many
nanomachines forming one smart material or larger machine system.
"You've mixed science and pop culture perfectly,"
"rock & roll meets science," and "a perfect
translation of Wired magazine" is how viewers
described the series. Somehow, the mix works. The humor doesn't
detract from technical accuracy or factual richness of interviews
with MIT professor and Foresight advisor Marvin Minsky, Nobel
laureate in chemistry Kary Mullis, IBM physicist Don Eigler, as
well as Eric Drexler and Ralph Merkle.
A visit with physicist Don Eigler in his STM lab at IBM gives a
remarkably personal and hands-on feel of Eigler's experience of
working with atoms, as he describes the sense of intimate
knowledge gained after "a morning pushing on an atom. You
get to appreciate how stubborn they can be and how big an atom
actually is when you can go around to the right side of it, or
you can go around to the left side of it, or you can go on top of
Charles L. Owen and his Masters candidates at the Design Center
of the Illinois Institute of Technology provide a sense of homey
concreteness as they explore the implications of designing homes
and home furnishings with smart materials.
And the program doesn't shy away from difficult areas, from the
potential large-scale dangers to unfamiliar territory such as
science fiction writer Greg Bear on the self-referential dilemmas
of how "We would have complete control over our physical
shape and the design of our minds. And when we have control over
the design of our minds, we are literally making decisions about
how to make decisions."
How did they manage the mix so well between science and art, fact
Tim Ferris of University of California at Berkeley and Senior
Science Advisor for Future Quest describes himself as a science
writer focused primarily on physics and astronomy. Despite
multiple decades of experience in media, Ferris rarely agrees to
participate in television or film projects these days because the
likely outcome is that the project will not be scientifically
sound and the process of dealing with uncooperative producers is
"a bloodbath. You get a lot of calls [from producers] saying
they want to be scientifically accurate. But there's a movie
tradition that one's own imagination is superior to the truth.
It's a Scholastic attitude to knowledge," he says.
Not so with Future Quest. Ferris gives credit to the high quality
of the production team, whom he describes as "very committed
to getting things right and to being faithful to the facts"
and the impressive integrity of its producers. It also seems to
be integrity backed by education, because the Future Quest team
includes a strong showing of people with scientific backgrounds.
For the technically knowledgeable viewer, there's no problem
distinguishing between actual STM footage, scale-accurate
molecular models, and special-effects fantasies. How well does
the nontechnical viewer fare? "My work in the rough cuts was
to avoid juxtapositions that would be confusing," says
Ferris. He points out that maintaining the orientation of the
viewers and allowing them to discriminate between factual images
and fantasy images during "rapid cutting is a familiar
problem." Still, a nontechnical viewer--particularly a
younger student--would probably benefit from a knowledgeable
friend playing tour guide through the visual barrage.
The students may be getting those tours. Kathleen French notes
with satisfaction the large numbers of schools requesting copies
of the videotapes.
French also notes how different the world has become in the brief
time between the start of the project and today. "When we
began work in September 1993, it was hard to find people who
could talk about nanotechnology. Now I've just come back from a
conference at University of California at Irvine, and everybody
there is talking about building molecular devices."
To quote series host, Jeff Goldblum: "Wow."
Transcripts of the program can be downloaded from the Future
Quest directory at their WorldWideWeb site: http://metaverse.com.
[Editor's note: This resource seems to be no longer
available on the Web.] To request information about buying a
videotape of the segment, send your name, address and phone
number (optional) to: Future Quest, Producers Entertainment
Group, 9250 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 205, Beverly Hills, CA
90212. [Editor's note: See correction in
Thanks to Marie-Louise Kagan for sending us her tape of the show.
"If you think of a redwood tree or a whale, you know,
nature doesn't build those things by sub-assembling six or eight
big parts of a whale, the tail and the fins, and then putting
them together into a whale. It builds from the molecular level on
up--that's how all life works."
Timothy Ferris, professor of journalism, UC Berkeley
"You're starting to deal with the smallest granules of
matter...and make stable structures out of them. The
possibilities are incredible."
Kary Mullis, Nobel laureate in chemistry
"We can imagine what things might be like in the future,
and if we have the possibility of building things from the bottom
up, then that opens up a tremendous range of possible structures
Don Eigler, IBM physicist
"Twenty years from now you will see the beginnings of
desk-top factories: a little trace of natural gas, a few trace
chemicals, some software, and individual devices will come out
one at a time, with essentially no pollution, almost no energy
Peter Schwartz, president, Global Business Network
"Imagine very complex materials which--in a funny
sense--are not materials, but collections of machines, except
from our scale they look like a material. And yet...because
they're machines they can sense and act, so that the material
itself in our scale can change in sophisticated ways. You can
image some of the things in movies like Terminator II
really happening--materials 'morphing,' changing into different
Charles L. Owen, Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of
"The most hopeful book I've read in ten years is Eric
Drexler's Engines of Creation."
"The question of whether it's realistic is not an issue. The
question is when does it happen. And all of the indications are
that it's going to happen sooner than we might have anticipated,
i.e. the precursor technologies are already there, those of
control and manipulation and sensation."
Peter Schwartz, president, Global Business Network
"Anything you can clearly define, you can build with
nanotechnology devices, once you have them."
"The whole idea is to reduce the size of a machine to
molecular dimensions. If you can do that, you can do all sorts of
Charles Sheffield, Chief Scientist, Earth Satellite
The Financial Times (October 7, 1994), calling it
"a technology that promises to affect virtually every aspect
of our world," quotes Eric Drexler: "We are talking
about a technology that is inevitable, a technology that will
have a greater impact than the industrial revolution on a much
shorter timescale, yet we are doing nothing to prepare for
it." Ralph Merkle calculates that "if you chart these
[development] rates as straight lines, they all converge in the
2010 to 2020 timeframe."
Foresight advisor and M.I.T. Prof. Marvin Minsky, leader in
artificial intelligence, writes provocatively in the October 1994
Scientific American, "eventually, using
nanotechnology, we will entirely replace our brains. Once
delivered from the limitation of biology, we will decide the
length of our lives...and choose among other, unimagined
capabilities as well." Referencing his book The Society
of Mind, Minsky explores the nature of intelligence and the
mechanics of nanotechnology-based extensions adding capacity and
capabilities to human bodies, brains, and lives.
NBC News celebrated New Year's Eve with a segment featuring
Eric Drexler of IMM and Ralph Merkle of Xerox PARC doing
nanotechnology research. On medical nanotechnology, Merkle said,
"for the first time we'll be able to intervene at the scale
where the damage actually occurs and reverse the injury."
Physicist Don Eigler, whose work at IBM Almaden was described as
"pointing the way" to nanotechnology, said "You've
got to get excited about that."
American Biotechnology Laboratory, December 1994, calls
nanotechnology "the next opportunity for
biotechnology," and "the next major grass roots startup
in science." They describe the plenary lecture given by Ted
Kaehler of Apple Computer at the 1994 Oak Ridge Conference.
Commenting on self assembly of molecular structures, the article
observes: "Sound fantastic? I said the same about printed
Business Week's September 19, 1994, issue
features Ralph Merkle of Xerox PARC, Palo Alto, where
"ever-cheaper computing power is transforming research, even
allowing scientists to build nano-machines atom by atom."
The September 5, 1994, Chemical & Engineering News reported
on "noted expert in nanotechnology" Eric Drexler and
his talk at the American Chemical Society National Meeting
focused on environmentally benign chemistry, or green
technologies. Drexler is quoted: "Because molecular
manufacturing will rely on direct mechanical control of the
trajectories of individual reactive molecules, it will enable
unprecedented control of the products and byproducts of chemical
processes." C&EN describes nanotechnology as
offering "the potential for efficiency, high productivity,
high-product quality, low resource consumption, and avoidance of
The September 22, 1994, Nature article "Japan
Builds on Global Lead in Nanotechnology" surveys current
funding, projects, participants, and progress. Although the
article includes discussion of top-down as well as bottom-up
nanotechnology work, it serves to underscore the Japanese
commitment to nanoscale R&D and to early commercialization.
In the October 1994 JOM (formerly Journal of Metals),
Senior Associate Dave Forrest reports on Foresight's 1993
nanotechnology conference, Computer-Aided Design of Molecular
Systems, providing cogent summaries of the main talks and panels.
The work of USC's Leonard Adleman using DNA for computation
received widespread coverage in which the media sometimes labeled
it as "nanotechnology" or a "DNA computer."
While it is an interesting and very clever experiment in using
molecular methods to solve a computational problem, the system
described is not a general-purpose computational device (i.e.,
not equivalent to a Turing machine).
Wired magazine, the hippest of high-tech hip
publications, evidently agrees with Foresight that nanotechnology
has become "obvious." In their November 1994
"Tired vs. Wired" list (i.e., trends that are Out vs.
In), nanotechnology is declared "tired." We look
forward to nanotechnology's continued progress from chic concept
to daily reality.
From Foresight Update 20, originally
published 1 February 1995.