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Foresight Update 37

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

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Inside Foresight

by Chris Peterson

U.S. House Hosts Nanotechnology "Lovefest"

Chris Peterson It's gratifying to have the case for molecular nanotechnology presented — clearly, forcefully, enthusiastically — in Washington, DC, by a Nobel chemist. As you'll read elsewhere in this issue, Richard Smalley of Rice University's testimony to a House subcommittee advocated a wide variety of applications for molecular nanotechnology, from destroying cancer cells, to making cheap solar energy, to the large-scale, ambitious space elevator.

The hearing was what I believe is called a "lovefest" — everyone who spoke was on the side of funding and developing molecular nanotechnology, both those testifying and the House committee members asking questions.

The issues of safety and potential abuse did not arise in this particular hearing, but Foresight/IMM's Dr. Ralph Merkle was ready to address them if they had. We can be sure that such tough questions will come up at later hearings, and when they do, we'll be glad that our organizations have put some serious effort into the beginnings of an approach on these challenging problems.

Will all this cheerful noise in Washington have a positive effect on molecular nanotechnology? Probably yes — the U.S. National Science Foundation's representative made it clear that NSF wants to lead a nanotechnology effort, even if it means having to testify along with two researchers making such strong (yet accurate) claims that the phrase "sounds like science fiction" is brought to mind, especially for newbies.

But will NSF be able to stay on track for molecular nanotechnology, and not get distracted off into nanolithography, MEMS, and so on? This is unclear, but the problem is real. So much of science and technology can attach a nano-prefix —perfectly legitimately — that it's a challenge to sort out the projects that really advance the ability to build objects with every atom in a designed location.

Some have speculated that a poorly-focused government program in this area could actually slow down progress, but this is unlikely for two reasons: (1) there are far more researchers who can do relevant work than such a funding program could absorb, and (2) the existence of government funding tends to stimulate privately-funded projects.

I hope you did get to see the testimony live via the web, but we've heard that some of our email notifications on this were delayed in arrival. We will be discussing this unfortunate occurrence with our ISP, but the good news is that the webcast has been archived and can now be seen anytime. You'll need a decent connection — ISDN is fast enough — but this event is worth going to another location, such as a friend's office or a local library, if you have to. (If you did not receive notice of the webcast, this means we do not have your current email address. Please send it to

Putting Fundraising In Perspective

More good news: last time I apologized that this year's "Group Genius" Senior Associate Gathering had already filled up. It's over now, but you can still attend virtually — a large website has been prepared and is available on the Senior Associate main site. If you're not sure it's worth joining, check out the comments at:

Those of you who've been with Foresight since the beginning, when dues were only $25, may be wondering why there's now all this emphasis on getting regular members to upgrade to Senior Associates. Here's why: It's the web.

You'll recall from Engines of Creation that we at Foresight saw the web coming long before it actually hit. We knew it would be powerful, and would change the way Foresight operates. We had hoped that it would include a mechanism enabling easy, small donations of amounts as low as, say, 25 cents — these are called "micropayments," and are not practical yet. Instead, almost everything on the web is free.

This appearance of zero-cost is pleasant for users. But there's a downside: how do we pay for all this web work? Foresight's members are very web-savvy, so we get some help from volunteers, but running a large, high-quality website is far too much work for a few volunteers. It costs real money, and it's worth every penny.

Thus, the drive for recruiting the higher-level members. To sweeten the deal, we offer benefits such as our annual Gatherings and the special website. Here in the Bay Area, we've even been having quarterly fundraising parties and monthly dinners, the better to lure in new Senior Associates (For a review of the fundraising parties, see: We also encourage members to help recruit new Senior Associates — locally by bringing guests to the quarterly and monthly gatherings, and world-wide with gift memberships, book purchases, speaking engagements, gentle persuasion and, in some cases, zealous enthusiasm.

This year's Gathering was phenomenal, as the comment web page cited above shows. Originally begun as a fundraiser, the meeting still serves this purpose well — many Foresight members finally break down and write that $250 check, or type in that credit card number on our secure web form, in order to get invited to their first Gathering.

But a great thing has happened — our fundraisers have evolved to become major opportunities for actual progress in thinking about the issues Foresight works on. If you visit the "Group Genius" area on the Senior Associate website, you'll be able to see this for yourself.

It's worked so well that we're thinking of trying it again, but in a more ambitious way. We've designed the most interesting set of topics we can for a new workshop series — the Foresight Perspectives series — and set the donation level quite high to keep the events small. We've also described them in a way that is compatible with companies making the donation, as well as individuals.

So even though the Perspectives donation is out of range for most Foresight members — and even for most Senior Associates — you might try to interest your firm in picking up the membership fee and sending you to some of these workshops, and perhaps sending other employees to the workshops that don't appeal to you. Check it out at

But if the Perspectives series is truly beyond reach, even for your employer, we hope to see you at the next Gathering, or online annotating the Group Genius pages or discussing issues in the chat area. We hope this for two reasons:

  • we know you would enjoy and appreciate being a Senior Associate, and
  • If Foresight is to do its work, we need your help, including your donations.

Note: The next Senior Associate Gathering will be held September 17-19, 1999.

Try not to miss another Gathering, or another of Eric Drexler's quarterly letters to the Senior Associates. But to all of you who are already donating at your financial limit — thanks. Every contribution, at any level, aids Foresight's work.

Christine Peterson is Executive Director of Foresight Institute.

Foresight Update 37 - Table of Contents


Senior Associate Group Genius Event:
A Successful Experiment

One of the most interesting insights humans have prized out of their study of the universe around them in recent decades has been the idea that, from apparent chaos, complex systems will self-organize, developing higher and higher levels of structure and stored information.

Foresight Senior Associates were given an opportunity to explore this concept firsthand in a grand experiment called the "Group Genius Weekend" held in Palo Alto from May 21 to 23.

Take a couple of hundred people of high intelligence of diverse backgrounds, bring them together in a space of limited physical dimensions but diversely subdivided into small conceptual patches, add copious quantities of high-quality fuels in the form of snacks, buffets, and drinks, and provide for high-bandwidth, multi-channel, simultaneous communications links via talking, shouting, laughter and other, significantly ruder noises, and hold the resultant mixture under sustained pressure for two and a half days, and — well, amazing and surprising things will occur.

We asked Chris Peterson, Executive Director of the Foresight Institute, about the results of the experiment.

Q. The Group Genius Weekend was a real departure from past Senior Associate gatherings. What motivated Foresight to try this new format?

A. In the past, the Gatherings have been educational, entertaining, and social; they've been great meetings. This time we wanted to try to see whether the participants could make some actual progress — together, right at the event — on the big challenges that Foresight is trying to take on.

Gayle Pergamit and I had run across the DesignShop process when we recruited Matt and Gail Taylor as Senior Associates. Gayle and I found it so exciting that we actually took the time to write a book about the process — Leaping the Abyss: Putting Group Genius to Work. So when Matt and Gail offered to donate a DesignShop-style event to Foresight, we jumped at the chance, knowing that this was a truly unique opportunity to make progress on our goals.

Q. Okay, so MGTaylor offered to run a DesignShop for Foresight. But The Foresight Group Genius Event was a significant departure from the "usual" DesignShop process, with new, experimental aspects. How was it that Foresight and MG Taylor chose to conduct this experiment during the '99 Associates gathering?

A. We didn't actually have a choice. Our group was about twice as big as the maximum size for a standard DesignShop. Also, we didn't have the budget necessary to supply the level of support staff that a full DesignShop requires. So, Matt redesigned the event to include as many aspects of the DesignShop process as possible, augmenting that with extra help from the participants themselves, and counting on them to help us figure out how to make it work in real time. Given who was there, we assumed they would make it work if they chose to do so, and sure enough they did. And had a great time doing it.

Trying the new format wasn't really a risky decision at all, given that if you take this group of people — some of the most interesting people on the planet — and put them in an extremely interesting environment, along with good food and lots of books, it is quite difficult to have it go badly. At the very worst, it would degenerate into a truly excellent party. Given that worst-case scenario, we felt comfortable taking a chance with a new process.

Q. What parts of the experiment worked? What parts didn't? What was your impression of the group dynamics going on over the course of the weekend?

A. Overall we are extremely pleased with how the event went, as were the vast majority of participants, shown by the quotes collected from them, now on the web Lots of real work got done, and real new insights (including a few technical ones) were reached. Senior Associates can see these on the event website, which has now been moved to the Senior Associate website.

As for what didn't work: it wasn't as organized as it will be next time. There were periods, especially early on, when participants weren't clear on what was happening. People are used to Foresight events being very well-organized, so this was a bit of a shock, but after a few hours we got rolling very well indeed.

One other problem is that we maxed-out the facility we were in, so that not everyone who wanted to come could fit in the door, and we actually had to turn away participants. This was painful. Next time, we will see whether there is a way to solve this, possibly by transporting the DesignShop environment to a very large hotel conference room. But this wouldn't be nearly as pleasant as the lovely Palo Alto facility we were in this time, so it's a dilemma.

On the group dynamics, I'd say — just from walking around — that most of the groups worked well together. I did hear about one or two difficulties over the course of the weekend, but this is to be expected from a group with such strong personalities discussing such controversial, often emotional topics. We'll try to do more facilitation next time, to reduce the occurrences of this kind of thing.

Finally, the group did make clear that they want to try this process again, but are not willing to give up their traditional Gatherings, with the result that it looks as though we are going to have hold two Gatherings a year: one traditional, one using the new process as it evolves.

The next Senior Associate Gathering will be held September 17-19, 1999.

Q. Participants almost uniformly felt the event itself was its own justification. But what major insights and/or benefits for the Foresight organizations came out of the Group Genius event?

A. For Foresight as an organization, the biggest benefit was finding out that, given the opportunity, the Senior Associates as a group were able to work hard together on tough problems, and actually make significant progress, even the very first time they tried, in an experimental (at times, chaotic) process.

This gives us hope that the huge task we've taken on may be tractable, at least in part, if we can keep this cooperative work going. But we'll need to make it happen year-round on the web, to make enough progress to have a chance at success.

As Chris informs us in her Inside Foresight column this month, the success of the Group Genius Weekend has led to a whole new series of experiments — the Foresight Perspective Series — in bringing together groups of interested, intelligent people to help solve some of the most pressing challenges we face in the coming years. For more information about the Perspective events, a new web page is available at

For pictures of "geniuses" at work and play during the May 1999 "Group Genius Weekend," see page 3.

Foresight Update 37 - Table of Contents


Stock Donations to Foresight
—a Win Win

Updated November 2004

Donate stock that's appreciated in value. This is a win-win move. Donate stock and you won't have to pay capital gains taxes on the profits, and the full value of the stock can be deducted as a charitable donation.

For example, say you own $10,000 worth of stock that you originally bought for $3,000. If you sell it now, you'll pay tax on the $7,000 profit. (If you're in the 28 percent federal tax bracket, and qualify for the 20 percent long-term capital gains rate, you'd pay $1,400 in tax. That reduces the $10,000 to $8,600.) But if you give your $10,000 worth of unsold stocks to a charity, the IRS kindly lets you claim a tax deduction for the full $10,000. At the 28% tax bracket that works out to a $2,800 deduction.

It's quick, it's easy, it helps Foresight

Instruct your broker to transfer stock to Foresight Institute through our broker, Comerica Securities. DTC Clearing #226. FBO: Foresight Institute; Account BG5-549614. If you need additional information please contact the Foresight Institute at or 650-917-1122. Tax benefits are described at:

Foresight Update 37 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5

From Foresight Update 37, originally published 30 July 1999.

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