Foresight Update 33
A publication of the Foresight Institute
Web Watch 33
Nanotechnology Research Policy
"Molecular Nanotechnology Research in the U. S. and in Japan" by Richard H. Smith is a detailed report on the impact of national research policies on the emerging field of nanotechnology. After introductory sections covering total research and development spending patterns in the U.S. and in Japan, and a brief overview of molecular nanotechnology, Smith describes what organizations are carrying out nanotechnology research in each country, and notes that the Japanese approach to developing nanotechnology seems more coordinated than does the American approach. He sees two problems with the American approach of decentralized control coupled with declining basic research funding: (1) it provides little opportunity for government regulation to insure safety and minimize abuse during the development of molecular nanotechnlogy; (2) it provides little support for basic research in novel directions, instead encouraging researchers to emphasize incremental progress in well-understood fields. Concluding that there is no viable alternative to organized government supported research, Smith holds forth the Human Genome Project as a model for supporting the development of nanotechnology. He argues that it is possible to have a coordinated effort without making the mistake of "putting all the eggs in one basket".
One excellent starting point for information on nanotubes and related subjects is the Web site of Michigan State University physics professor David Tomanek. Included are MPEG movies of simulations of C60 and C240 fullerenes colliding http://www.pa.msu.edu/cmp/csc/simulation.html; of a C60 buckyball melting http://www.pa.msu.edu/cmp/csc/simulC60melt.html; of double-wall carbon nanotube melting http://www.pa.msu.edu/cmp/csc/simtubemlt.html. There is also a page of links to other nanotube Web pages http://www.pa.msu.edu/cmp/csc/nanotube.html.
Another carbon nanotube page maintained by Peter Harris of the University of Reading contains a brief history of carbon nanotubes, a list of WWW links, and a list of publication references.
Scanning Probe Microscopy and Nanolithography
The QUEST project Web site is focused on the application of scanning probe microscopy-based lithography "to push the fabrication of silicon based devices below the 20 nm limit." The site includes several complete research papers on SPM-lithography of silicon, and related topics.
The "Scanning Probe Microscopy Teaching Web Site," constructed by two pharmacy students as part of their degree work, provides a well-illustrated introduction to basic SPM principles, with most of the site devoted to atomic force microscopy (AFM) and some of its applications.
"Manipulating atoms: The quest for ultimate control", a short paper on the IBM Web site written by Bob Donlan, considers how advances at IBM and elsewhere, such as manipulating atoms with an STM to make "quantum corrals", or making molecular wires that work, might eventually make possible quantum computers and/or computers with atomic scale parts. He concludes that "Unless something intervenes to block our technological progress, atomic-scale manufacturing is inevitable..."
Discussion Group Archives
Peter McCluskey has made the very extensive sci.nanotech archives available on Foresight's crit.org server. Several indices are provided that organize the messages by discussion topic. This is the place to go for extended discussions (moderated by Dr. John Storrs "Josh" Hall) on everything related to nanotechnology, from technical questions to implications for world security, cryonics, mind-uploading, etc. The site includes a search engine.
Nanotechnology and Speculation
The web site for James L. Halperin's nanotechnology and cryonics novel The First Immortal (see review elsewhere in this issue) offers the prologue and first chapter from the novel, "future news" extracts from the novel, an opinion poll, comments, and links to other information on nanotechnology, cryonics, and related subjects. There is also a site http://www.truthmachine.com/ for Mr. Halperin's related first novel, The Truth Machine.
One crucial element in the future universe of the Halperin novels (see above) is that artificial intelligences are denied emotions and survival instincts so that they remain servants of humanity rather than becoming independent. An alternate view on this topic is presented by Dr. Hugo de Garis, who heads the Brain Builder Group at ATR, a research lab in Kyoto, Japan. "I expect, with the help of my group and international collaborators (from 9 countries), to build an artificial brain with a billion artificial neurons, with evolved cellular automata (CA) based neural circuits, by the year 2001. We already have 10 million neurons, and expect to achieve our target on time." This site contains information on his technical work, including a brief page on a collaboration to explore making a nano-scale brain with evolvable circuits using quantom dot technology (http://www.hip.atr.co.jp/~degaris/news/NanoBrain.html). The site also contains essays (http://www.hip.atr.co.jp/~degaris/essays/index.html) on his concern that nanotechnology and other developments will lead to artificial intellects ("artilects") so vastly superior to humanity as to make humans an inferior species, leading to intense warfare (including nuclear holocaust) between those who want to develop artilects ("Cosmists") and the "Terrans", who will violently oppose the effort.
More Nanotechnology Talks on the Web
It is now possible to watch videos over the Web of two talks from the 1997 Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology. At this site, you can use your computer to watch Ralph Merkle's introduction to the Conference and Richard Smalley's keynote address.
An introduction to molecular nanotechnology that Dr. Ralph Merkle presented at Xerox PARC on March 12 1998 is available at this site, both in the form of the slides presented and as a RealAudio file, so you can simultaneously view the slides on your web browser while listening to the talk.
The First Immortal Explores
Nanotechnology's Impact on Future of Humanity
by Jim Lewis and Lewis M. Phelps
The First Immortal, by James L. Halperin, is a thoroughly engaging story of a plausible future for humanity. It is firmly anchored in our current knowledge of science--there is no fantasy, no need to postulate some ad hoc discovery of new physics or some far-fetched technology with no basis in current science. The story starts early in the 20th century, flows through our real world to the present, and evolves by small and plausible changes into a startling vision of the first 125 years of the next millennium.
The protagonist is one Dr. Benjamin Franklin Smith, born in 1925, an independent thinker as a teenager, with a faith in science and the advance of technology that leads him to consider the possibilities of conquering aging and death. Nevertheless, he lives for the most part a fairly ordinary life for a man of his times: surviving a Japanese P.O.W. camp in WW II, raising a family, becoming a successful physician, and then, almost accidentally stumbling upon cryonics and signing up a few years before dying of a heart attack in his early sixties.
Smith's cryonic suspension catalyses conflict among his surviving family members, which the novel explores as it traces the changes in society and technology. The story unfolds as seen through the eyes of Smith's descendants over the decades until advances in nanotechnology allow Smith's revival eight decades after his death and suspension. Not stopping with the hero's return to life, Halperin explores the various dramas among Dr. Smith and his family members across six generations as they adjust to and find meaning and purpose in a world that the older of them could not have imagined.
Nanotechnology makes cryonic suspension--the process of having one's body (or at least one's head) preserved in liquid nitrogen very quickly after legal death--a reasonable possibility to cheat death. The novel clearly and accurately explains how that is possible. One can find a few small quibbles with the technical explanations. For example, Halperin describes an assembler with arms build of iron atoms, which are held together by relatively weak bonds, and thus would not be rigid enough for positional control of molecular synthesis. One also wonders why he thinks that defeating the telomere aging clock is so difficult that it would take more than a decade beyond the development of functional cell repair machines. But the author gets all the important points right (as one might expect; he acknowledges assistance from experts in fields as diverse as nanotechnology and finance), and explains them succinctly and painlessly. Like many good novels, this one reflects good research.
Nevertheless, the novel is not really about technology, but about people and their relationships, and how these relationships are changed and intensified by technology that fundamentally alters the constants of human existence. It covers such diverse themes as the value of clear thinking versus mysticism and superstition, the unexpected consequences of actions, and the value of forgiveness in human relations. It explores psychological and emotional (and spiritual and philosophical) issues through the dialogues of the characters, and affirms the continuing importance of human values in a civilization without aging, practically without death, and without poverty or violence.
It also introduces, almost as throw-away lines, glimpses at the accelerating evolution of humans and other species through the application of technology--interspecies communication, telepathy, interstellar colonization, to name a few.
If you are new to the memes of nanotechnology, life extension, and cryonics, this novel will open your eyes to staggering possibilities made real through application to the lives of believable characters. If you are familiar with these ideas, you can enjoy comparing your conception of the coming decades with the author's. For example, many Foresight members will consider Halperin's time line for the development of nanotechnology a bit slow: it doesn't really get going until about 2030 and takes another three decades to mature. Also, most of the concerns about the potential for horrendous abuse of nanotechnology are settled off-stage by the advent of world government, made possible (and benign) by the development of an infallible lie-detector that leads society to surrender privacy in return for security and prosperity (treated in detail in Halperin's earlier novel The Truth Machine).
Finally, and perhaps most controversially, artificial intelligences are firmly restrained to roles as servants of humanity and special purpose advisors by a quickly developed and universally observed consensus not to endow them with survival instincts or emotions. These assumptions are all necessary to drive the novel's plot line, but they do not arise as natural extensions of today's interaction between science and society, or between the incredibly diverse world-views of different social systems on earth today.
Indeed, if one wished to quarrel with the future world-view Halperin constructs, one might focus upon the optimism with which he views the ability of rationality and technology to overcome superstition, demagoguery, and the perverse sides of human nature. It requires a deus ex machina--Halperin's Truth Machine--to create a global government that is powerful but self-limiting in its action, and to overcome the powerful ethnic and religious forces that have driven human conflict since the dawn of history. In the real future world, Utopia will not be so easily achieved.
By writing a novel that paints an attractive picture of how life might evolve in a world pivoting around technology and rationality, Halperin has set the stage for discussions of what future we want to build, and how to go about it. In an afterword discussing the feasibility of cryonics and life extension, Halperin argues that the most important thing people can do to make it come about is to "subvert secular mysticism by tactfully debunking it whenever you can." His entire book undertakes that task, and thus contributes--whether deliberately or otherwise--to achieving Foresight Institute's goal "to guide emerging technologies to improve the human condition."
James B. Lewis, PhD., is a molecular biologist, consultant, and Webmaster for Foresight Institute and the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing. Lew Phelps is a business communications consultant and Editor of Foresight Update.
copy of The First Immortal from our
Online Nanotechnology Bookstore
From Foresight Update 33, originally
published 30 May 1998.