Foresight Background 0, Rev. 5

Nanotechnology and Organizations

© Copyright 1987-1991, The Foresight Institute.


Nanotechnology and Enabling Technologies

"Nanotechnology and Enabling Technologies" is available as Foresight Briefing #2 (originally published c. 1989)


Postscript for Engines of Creation: The Need for Foresight Groups

by K. Eric Drexler, written circa 1987

The Path Ahead

Much has happened since the publication of Engines of Creation: Reviews and articles have appeared. Thousands of people have read the book. I have presented the basic concepts of nanotechnology to many audiences, both lay and technical, stirring strong interest and leading to long question sessions. More and more people are taking nanotechnology seriously and becoming concerned with both its promise and its dangers.

Many people have asked "What can we do?" This essay outlines a general approach; the following essay on the Foresight Institute suggests a specific starting point. To decide what to do, we need to consider our problem, consider our goals, and seek a path toward those goals.

The Challenges Ahead

The challenge of future technologies

As Engines describes, molecular assemblers--devices able to build almost anything atom by atom--will set technology on a new foundation, ushering in the era of nanotechnology. Self-replicating assemblers will enable us to make everything from microscopic computers to great starships for the price of crabgrass. Meanwhile, advances in artificial intelligence (Al) will speed engineering design, eventually by a millionfold or more. AI will enable us rapidly to develop even complex forms of nanotechnology, such as cell repair machines. Together, nanotechnology and Al promise great benefits: food for the hungry, wealth for the poor, an endless frontier in space, the healing of Earth's biosphere, and a chance at long, healthy lives for all.

These capabilities will also bring dangers more potent than nuclear weapons. The power inherent in AI and assembler technology could give a decisive military advantage to their possessors; the prospect of an imminent breakthrough by one side could provoke war. The misuse of such power could destroy our hopes for the future: Abuse of replicating assemblers could destroy the biosphere; abuse of Al could yield potent technologies of oppression.

What is more, these technologies may bring us face to face with transitions more abrupt than any seen in history to date. The industrial revolution gave us a capital base that can be made to double in decades with hard work; replicating assemblers will give us a capital base that can double in minutes, with no work at all. Today, economic and military affairs are stabilized by the sheer sluggishness of production technology. To go from making a single computer to having millions or from a single missile to mere thousands takes years. A prototype embodying a technical breakthrough has no immediate revolutionary effect. But with production based on replicating assemblers, the time required to go from having a working prototype to having a million working units will shrink from years to days.

What is more, computer simulation may lead to substantial design-ahead; once assemblers reach a certain stage, they will enable the sudden implementation of pre-designed hardware. Artificial intelligence is less well understood and the possibilities are harder to foresee, but again one cannot ignore the possibility of a breakthrough in which fast, intelligent machines learn to design faster, more intelligent machines (which then design...). With nanotechnology and Al in the offing, a time of dizzying advance seems likely and an abrupt leap seems possible. Prudence suggests that we not depend on swift advances in technology to solve our problems. It also suggests that we prepare for what may be a real shock.

The Challenge of Understanding

As Engines argues, we have little choice in our fundamental strategy. In a world of competing companies and governments there seems no way to stop the advance of technology. We can't stop these advances--and would the poor, the hungry, the ill and the handicapped forgive us if we did?--Hence it seems we must try to guide them. But to guide them, we first must try to understand them.

We have a long way to go. Today, few have heard of nanotechnology, though this is changing rapidly. Fewer genuinely understand its basic consequences; this is changing more slowly.

Worse, nanotechnology invites dangerous misunderstandings. It will be based on complex, invisible devices, casting it free from the anchor of people's common sense understanding. It borders on biology and quantum mechanics, which have been fertile breeding grounds for popular nonsense. It remains far from experimental test, enabling nonsensical ideas to evade simple, direct disproof. It falls between established disciplines, depriving it of the judgment of established experts and refereed journals. Finally, its startling consequences will naturally attract the strange people who hang around the fringes of science--the fans of pseudoscience, the uncritical believers in whatever most excites them. In short, nanotechnology will be flooded with nonsensical ideas (beware--this has already begun!), and most people with an informal interest in the field will have trouble telling sense from nonsense. A similar story could be told for AI. Unless we exercise care, sound understanding will be hard to come by.

Yet sound understanding will be vital. For example, we need to understand the dangers of replicating assemblers, but these dangers are not what they might seem. Many people naturally fear that accidents will cause uncontrolled replication, a plague of nanomachines. (Despite my effort to present an accurate picture in interviews, this is how the problem has been portrayed in the media.) A closer look at the problem shows that this threat is easily avoided, that such accidents are virtually a non-issue: the real challenge is to prevent the deliberate abuse of replicator technology.

False fears lead to bad policy. Fear of "inevitable, catastrophic accidents" would foster efforts to stop the technology, even if those efforts were recognized as hopeless. But such efforts would hinder efforts to guide the technology: they would give us less influence over policymakers, giving us less chance to prevent its abuse. Greater and greater success would only drive research farther and farther from public scrutiny and control, driving it first from universities and companies into military labs, then overseas, and ultimately into closed military research facilities run by governments having little concern for our newspapers and ballots.

In general, false ideas will generate false fears, wasting the efforts of those who believe the ideas, wasting the efforts of those who fight the ideas, and casting a pall of confusion over the whole subject. And confusion will waste further human resources by encouraging resigned apathy. Only sound understanding can encourage cooperation and effective action. And this must include an understanding of the limits to our knowledge.

Building Understanding

From a swelling sea of enthusiasm and confusion, we need to distill a measure of understanding and wise action. We have the means, not to perfect our knowledge, but at least to improve it: Technical ideas in nanotechnology can be criticized by biologists, chemists, physicists, computer scientists, engineers, and others, building areas of technical consensus. Policy ideas can be criticized by informed policy-makers and citizens, building areas of policy consensus. But to succeed, we must deal with complex issues where experts will at first be hard to find and hard to distinguish from charlatans. New modes of organization and new tools such as fact forums and hypertext publishing may be of help in building a sound intellectual community more rapidly.

What do we want our situation to be when the crucial breakthroughs approach? In part, we want to have hammered out an agreement on essential facts and policies regarding replicating assemblers and much, much else. In doing so, we will be better off if the discussion involves a wide range of contributors rather than a narrow group, and if discussion is marked by a genuine clash of ideas, rather than by competing mobs of leaders and followers arguing past one another. This will help us forge well-founded policies rather than heaping- up piles of opposed slogans.

To do this, we will need not just ideas, but organizations. We can best cope with the coming breakthroughs if we have diverse, credible, well-established groups--some ready to provide intellectual leadership, some ready to provide political pressure, some working to inform the public, and all sharing a basic consensus on the issues. A set of warring camps would accomplish little, but a single, unified group would be too narrow and limited. We will be better off if our discussions and organizations span national boundaries. In short, we need both effective debate and a diverse but coherent political force: that is, the means for formulating and implementing sound policy.

Building Organizations

There are additional reasons for building organizations, and for starting now. These reasons center around two facts:

(1) Because organizations will form regardless

The importance of nanotechnology and AI make organizational responses inevitable. Experience shows that new issues--raising new hopes and fears-- naturally spawn new organizations. Consider the examples of nuclear power, industrial waste, spaceflight, missile defenses, and so forth: all gave rise to organizations once people recognized their importance. Nanotechnology and AI will do likewise. As Engines shows, these technologies will transform medicine, industry, and war, making antibiotics, the industrial revolution, and nuclear weapons seem like small steps. if the scale of the resulting organizational activity has any relation to the importance of the issues, then that activity will eventually be immense.

As these issues become real to people, they will create "ecological niches" for many different organizations. The prospects for economic change, life extension, environmental benefit, environmental harm, space settlement, weapon systems, active shields, and thinking machines will encourage the formation of groups--often both pro and con-- working in technical research, policy research, public education, grassroots organization, and political action. Many of these niches will hold several groups having different views, or simply having different origins and leaders.

(2) Because we need to start out right, or at least not terribly wrong

Why does the formation of new organizations matter? Because the way these organizations are started--when, how, by whom, and for what purpose--will make a difference. If they are started earlier rather than later, they will be larger and more mature when the crises approach. If they start with adequate rather than inadequate structures, they will be more effective. If they begin under the leadership of flakes and fanatics, they will discourage serious interest, spread bad ideas, and worsen our chances of survival; but if they start on a sounder footing, with sounder principles, structures, and leaderships, they will be larger, healthier, and more effective.

Why does this matter now? Because it matters how organizations start, and which start first. There are some dangers to prevent. Experience shows that the first people to jump into new areas include a large fraction of extremists and crazies. Some of them are able enough to found organizations and set their agendas; this establishes a pattern that later, more sensible people may follow, simply because the channels are established. To see the problem, imagine a future in which the public debate on nanotechnology is dominated, say, by followers of Jeremy Rifkin, arguing for a total ban on nanotechnology, and followers of Lyndon LaRouche, arguing for an all-out effort to exploit it--each side arguing with little regard for the facts. We need organizations that begin with sensible agendas and founders, so sensible people will have somewhere to turn. We need to develop a strong, credible, diverse center, so we can hammer out a measure of agreement on public policy while we still have time to think.

The alternative to developing good organizations isn't a world guided by peaceful, academic discussion or even a world of quiet inaction. The alternative is seeing organizations emerge that waste human effort and pollute public debate. Where there are ecological niches for them, there will be organizations. Our choice is whether they will help us or hinder us. With the right foundations, they may be able to help greatly.

These considerations define a direction to move, not a rigid requirement that must be met. The further we move in the direction of a robust political force based on a genuine understanding of our situation, the better— but we might stumble through no matter what.

Groups and Metagroups

Where would we like to be in, say, five years? Presumably, we would like to have a substantial, growing number of people and groups involved in nanotechnology and AI—educating themselves and others, debating, researching, and so forth. This activity may be called the "foresight movement." It is already underway. In this movement, we need groups that are chiefly pro-progress, but aware of the dangers, and groups that are chiefly procaution, but aware of the inevitability of technological advance. A movement this broad (not narrowly pro- or anti-technology) will invite wide involvement, build credibility, and ensure that both dangers and opportunities are considered and debated. The goal of better understanding thus dovetails with the goal of a broad political base.

To smooth and speed the growth of an effective foresight movement, we can try to develop an effective framework for organizing#151;call it the "foresight metagroup", a group of groups. A metagroup of this sort would help develop organizations to prepare for the coming breakthroughs, and would help build an understanding of nanotechnology and Al by focusing critical discussion. It would help us build a broad movement by fostering diversity.

This approach draws on a wide range of ideas and analogies. Think of the left, the right, the environmental movement, the space movement, the women's movement#151;none has consisted of a single group. The experience of these loose-knit movements gives us reason to plan for many groups rather than a monolithic, all-purpose organization. Still, the value of coherence and of economies of scale give us reason to try to coordinate these groups in a loose framework. The aim, then, is to strike a balance between unity and diversity. We can try to link diverse organizations culturally, with a sense of shared ideas and purposes, and organizationally, with a set of shared institutions. At the same time, we can leave room for wide-ranging experimentation and disagreement.

Many organizations combine unity and diversity: Multiple association management firms (which provide offices and management services for multiple non-profit groups) show how groups can share skills and overhead expenses, making start-up and operations easier. Decentralized corporations, professional societies, universities, federations, and incubators for start-up companies all provide examples of some relevance.

With a loose-knit structure of diverse, overlapping organizations, a metagroup should be able to grow quickly and evolve quickly. Having diverse groups and a vigorous internal dialogue will help it evolve sound ideas and articulate them in a wide variety of ways. Groups associated with the metagroup#151;being numerous, diverse, vigorous, and sensible#151;will gain increasing influence on ideas and public policy. As the breakthroughs approach and nanotechnology rockets into the headlines, their influence could play a crucial role in making the future work.

table of characteristics of metagroup family of organizations

The Prospects

Building such a framework will not be the work of a day or a year. To develop a complex, workable system, one must start with a simpler system, make it work, and build from there. This essay has described a direction, not a starting point or a destination.

In practice, the effort to balance unity and diversity in a foresight metagroup may fall apart or fail to gel. If so, some of the overall effort invested will have been lost, but only a fraction of it. Groups will have formed and will continue to work. What is more, they are likely to share a set of attitudes, traditions, and relationships that yield at least some of the benefits of an ideal metagroup.

On the other hand, this effort may substantially succeed. If so, it will help us to formulate a sounder understanding of the challenges ahead and sounder policies for dealing with them. It will help us build a diverse, credible center to counter the threat of pro- and anti- technology polarization. And, it will will help bring together the skills, leadership, and grassroots support we will need if we are to turn sound policies into wise action.

How far will we succeed? No one can say. But two things seem clear: we will do better if we try than if we don't, and any step in the right direction may prove to be the crucial step on the path to a better future.


Nanotechnology Papers

"Molecular Engineering: Assemblers and Future Space Hardware," K. Eric Drexler. Paper AAS-86-415, presented at Aerospace XXI, the 33rd annual meeting of the American Astronautical Society, Boulder, Colorado, 26-29 October 1986.

Provides a general overview of molecular machines and assemblers from a mechanical engineering viewpoint, briefly sketching applications to space systems.

"Rod Logic and Thermal Noise in the Mechanical Nanocomputer," K. Eric Drexler. Proceedings of the Third International Symposium on Molecular Electronic Devices, Forrest Carter (ed.), Elsevier North Holland, in press.

Sketches various approaches to nanotechnology (protein engineering, synthetic chemistry, micromanipulators), then focuses on the fundamental elements of mechanical nanocomputers: wire-like signal transmission rods and transistor-like mechanical locks. Describes the structure and mechanical properties of these moving parts and derives estimates for friction and energy loss resulting from rod motions. Finally, models and analyzes the effects of thermal noise, leading to the description of a rod design which yields an overall error rate of less than one in a trillion logic operations.

Logic speeds are consistent with a gigahertz system clock; device sizes are consistent with volumes on the order of a thousandth of a cubic micron per CPU.

Editor's note: More in depth treatments of the above topics are provided in Dr. Drexler's 1992 nanotechnology text book Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation


Interview: Eric Drexler (Part I)

This interview was first published in Foresight Update 1.

FI: What led to your work on nanotechnology?

Drexler: For many years I'd been concerned about technology and the future, and had been looking at what could be built with tools that we didn't have yet. My work at MIT had focused on what we could build in space once we had inexpensive space transportation and industrial facilities in orbit. And this led to various sorts of work in space development.

But while doing that I'd been following a variety of fields in science and technology, including the work in molecular biology, genetic engineering, and so forth. I had been impressed by the fact that biological systems were based on molecular machines and that we were learning to design and build these sorts of things. This got me thinking about what sorts of things we could build when we got good at designing molecules. And this led pretty rapidly to the idea of self-assembling systems of molecules that could act as molecular machines--and the idea of molecular machines that could build other molecular machines. This was in the spring of 1977.

FI: This was the assembler idea?

Drexler: The assembler, yes, but the name came later. After realizing that we would eventually be able to build molecular machines that could arrange atoms to form virtually any pattern that we wanted, I saw that an awful lot of consequences followed from that. It began to look like one of the most important developments that we'd face in our future. And concern with this began to absorb more and more of my time.

    It began to look like one of the most important developments that we'd face in our future.    

FI: How do you think we're going to get to nanotechnology?

Drexler: Well, it's hard to say. It's a lot easier to see, at least in some cases, what the long-term limits of the possible will be, because they depend on natural law. But it's much harder to see just what path we will follow in heading toward those limits. It's like the difference between seeing mountains in the distance and knowing that there must be some way of reaching them and trying to figure out just what the easiest path to follow will be, as you cross a jumbled landscape of rivers and cliffs and underbrush between here and there.

At present, some areas of research that are leading in the direction of nanotechnology include protein engineering, other sorts of biochemical engineering, the beginnings of a micromanipulator technology growing out of the technology of the scanning tunneling microscope, and also more conventional sorts of chemistry. Which of these will in fact play the greater role is hard to say, and it may well be that all of them will play a role in the path that's eventually followed.

FI: Why do you emphasize the protein engineering path in your book and talks, rather than these other paths?

Drexler: Well, there are several reasons. In thinking about nanotechnology today, what's most important is understanding where it leads, what nanotechnology will look like after we reach the assembler breakthrough. But how we get to nanotechnology--what the intermediate technologies are, the enabling technologies--will make essentially no difference in what nanotechnology itself is like.

An analogy I like to use is that the shape of the wings and the composition of the aluminum in a 747 jet doesn't depend on the shape of the wings and the kind of cloth that was used in the Wright Flyer. The Wright brothers set us on the path to modern aircraft, but what we build today depends on technology today--our design abilities, the quality of our tools, and the materials we have to work with. Likewise nanotechnology will, once it gets under way, depend on the tools we have then and our ability to use them, and not on the steps that got us there.

So what's important right now is to understand that there are steps that lead to this new place. Protein engineering is not only a promising path, but it provides a very compact and (I think) persuasive argument for being able to build molecular machines, because proteins are molecular machines. We already see them serving the range of functions that are needed. That's not true for conventional chemistry or scanning tunneling microscope technology. They're not starting out as a technology of molecular machines, so they don't make such a neat case for nanotechnology.

FI: Aren't there also advantages in using that analogy because protein engineering is a form of biotechnology--something that people know should go ahead, but that they know has some risk? Is that another reason to emphasize this path, because it gets people thinking along the right lines?

Drexler: Yes, I think that makes sense. And again what that points to is the greater similarity between protein systems and real nanotechnology than between other enabling technologies and nanotechnology. Protein engineering is a technology of molecular machines--of molecular machines that are part of replicators--and so it comes from an area that already raises some of the issues that nanotechnology will raise.

FI: What do you think of the rate of progress toward nanotechnology?

Drexler: I'm impressed by the rate of progress. It's as fast or even a little faster than I had been expecting when I first published a paper on assemblers back in 1981. How fast it will move in the future is very hard to say, but we're clearly on the path to nanotechnology, indeed on several different paths to nanotechnology. An international race in the relevant technologies is getting under way at this point, not necessarily with an understanding of where that race leads in the long run, but strongly motivated by the short-term payoffs.

Concluded next issue


Opportunities for Action

Many of the letters we've received ask "How can I help?" Enabling many people to cooperate in preparing for future technologies is the purpose of our Institute. At this early stage the question of how to help breaks into two parts: (1) How can I help FI get rolling? and (2) What role can I play once the startup stage is over and the organization is in action?

Immediate Needs

As a first step, please fill out your questionnaire and return it with a contribution. [Editor's note: on the Web, see "Getting Involved! Join Foresight Institute"] We need to know who you are before we can see how you can best help. Another obvious step: Make your initial contribution substantial. Many of you wrote to us as a result of reading Engines of Creation. Look at it again to remind yourself of what it says about the awesome opportunities and dangers ahead. Look at the newspapers to remind yourself of how little awareness people have of our situation, and how little is being done to prepare. Then ask how much you can spare to help inform people and begin preparations, to help us arrive, alive and free, in a future worth living in. In these early days, your help could make a real difference.

If you have special skills in nonprofit law, accounting, or fundraising, please emphasize this on your questionnaire. If you have extensive experience with leading nonprofit organizations, we may need your advice, your contacts, and your skills.

While FI is getting started, there are actions you can take on your own. Those in academia can incorporate our shared goals and concerns into curricula covering the choices offered by nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and other advanced technologies, and the potential of new social technologies like hypertext and fact forums that will help us prepare. This can be done in many subjects, from technical courses to ethics seminars. We can spread these ideas by word-of-mouth and by writing letters to the editor and articles for various publications. These can rebut media coverage that paints an unrealistic picture of future technology. They can point out the need for fact forums and hypertext-based social software to help society make more intelligent decisions. Letters can suggest new perspectives to the writers and editors who shape the news. When you write such letters or articles, please send us a copy, especially if they are published.

Once FI is Moving

We plan to make social software a reality, and adapt it to the needs of a diverse, decentralized family of organizations. We'll need software developers for everything from large systems to simple user tools.

Right now FI is focusing on nanotechnology because it is a new and powerful idea. We will encourage special interest groups to examine the prospects and issues raised by artificial intelligence, life extension, space, and other key topics. These may spin off to form separate but cooperating groups. We'll need help from those concerned with these topics.

We'll be sponsoring lectures and conferences, and we'll want to start having experimental fact forums, either online or in person. We'll need organizational help for these, ranging from arranging for a lecture by a touring FI speaker to running a nation-wide fact forum involving quarrelsome experts.

Within FI we'll need help in editing and producing documents, since position papers and other writings will be our main output. Graphics skills will be welcome. Audio-visual skills will be needed to produce FI's audio and videotapes (we've already received requests for these.)

Finally, although the need for political action is far off, it will eventually be crucial. FI doesn't plan to handle this; as with many functions, it will be handled by one or more loosely affiliated groups. Political activists will then play a vital role.

One final request: please be patient with our delay in responding to your offers of help. It may take weeks or even months. Be assured that we're doing our best to get FI to the point where it can take advantage of its greatest resource: you and others with a concern for shaping the future.


What is the Foresight Institute?

Originally published circa 1987

The Foresight Institute is a nonprofit corporation founded to help us prepare for future technologies. The Institute will pursue this goal both directly, by research and public education, and indirectly, by developing an organizational framework of the sort described in the "Postscript to Engines of Creation." This indirect approach is intended to spawn a diverse, growing family of organizations that differ in their specific goals and strategies but that share a focus on the problems and opportunities presented by the coming breakthroughs in technology.

Foresight Institute Goals

A basic goal of the Foresight Institute is to help develop—not become—a metagroup of the sort described in the Postscript; the metagroup will foster good, effective organizations. In pursuing this goal, the Institute is involved with several activities:

General information project

Engines sketched only a few major aspects of nanotechnology, AI, and the issues they raise. To extend and update this information, the Foresight Institute publishes news, essays, and background information on these subjects. Foresight Update covers new developments regarding these fields and efforts to deal with them. Foresight Background complements the Updates news coverage by carrying information of enduring value. People new to our area of concern will have a need for basic information about future technologies, the issues they raise, and approaches to dealing with them. To provide this, revised versions of Foresight Background will be made available.

Hypertext publishing project

As Engines discusses in its chapter on "The Network of Knowledge," computer-based hypertext publishing systems promise real advantages as a medium for discussing complex issues. The Foresight Institute seeks to have such a system available to its members (and to the broader community) at the earliest possible date. We are exploring multiple approaches, including the adoption and extension of existing systems, development of a new system as an Institute project, and efforts to persuade existing institutions to develop suitable systems. This project will eventually need substantial funding, programmers, and early users.

The hypertext publishing project may provide alternatives to a more formal metagroup structure: By providing better channels for communication within and among groups, it will improve critical discussion and make new groups and projects easier to start.

Network project

To pursue the larger set of projects listed below, we'll need to involve many more people. Accordingly, a major effort of the Foresight Institute is the network project, aimed at involving people with needed knowledge, ability, and resources, including organizational leaders, technical leaders, financial contributors, and skilled volunteers. The initial phases will focus on contacting people and informing them about the coming breakthroughs and what we can do to prepare; later phases will involve meetings, discussions, and the formation of groups organized around specific goals.

Editor's note: for current opportunities, explore Foresight's Senior Associate Program

Organizational development project

For reasons described in the Postscript to Engines, the Foresight Institute has no intention of trying to direct efforts in all the areas outlined below. Instead, we will foster the emergence of a broad family of groups loosely linked in a flexible organizational framework, a metagroup. It should be emphasized that, the Institute will not be the metagroup; it will instead be a group within the metagroup. The organizational development project will refine plans for a flexible metagroup framework through discussions and the circulation of draft proposals; it will also help organize initial groups within the metagroup and help develop needed metagroup institutions.

Editor's note: The research organization in the metagroup is the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing

Examples of potential projects

The network and organizational development projects are aimed at expanding our community and making it more effective. We will need more resources to accomplish just the tasks already outlined, but a single group could plausibly handle them. The need for a larger family of organizations is more clearly shown by listing some other desirable projects:

Media resource center project: Help reporters find experts, information, illustrations.

Fact forum project: Sponsor fact forums at universities, work to build public recognition of the fact forum approach.

Political action project: Form an organization for political action, perhaps to promote greater US cooperation with Japan's international Human Frontier Science Program.

University course project: Develop a syllabus and readings for a seminar on nanotechnology, teach it, expand it into a course.

Editor's note: The eventual result of a course on nanotechnology taught at Stanford was Dr. Drexler's 1992 nanotechnology text book Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation

Molecular graphics project: Gain access to a molecular graphics facility, produce quality pictures of molecular machines.

Editor's note: For some examples, see the Molecular Machine Parts page at IMM

Video productions project: Produce videotapes on future technologies, suitable for television and for circulation within the Foresight community.

Dictionary project: Produce a dictionary of terms and concepts relating to future technologies and the issues they raise, to aid communication in the community.

Journal project: When enough high-quality material becomes available, produce a journal of nanotechnology, then a journal of future technology policy.

Community organization project: Help form and coordinate local groups to further public education.

Specialized projects: Many of the above projects could be pursued with a broad, balanced focus on nanotechnology and AI. Similar projects could also be pursued with more specialized goals or advocacy positions of the sorts outlined in Table 1 of the Postscript to Engines.

Getting Started

The main strength of the Foresight Institute today lies in a set of exciting ideas about our future and how to make it work. We are seeing the beginning of a long wave of interest in nanotechnology and the coming breakthroughs--no one can tell how swiftly or smoothly that wave will rise, but its final crest will be colossal.

The Foresight Institute aims to seed society with ideas and organizations that will grow with this wave and shape it. Now, at the beginning, every contribution of time, money, and information will count most heavily. We invite your help in building our future.


Books of Note

Compiled circa 1987

Proceedings of the Third International Symposium on Molecular Electronic Devices, Forrest Carter (ed.), Elsevier North Holland, in press.
A collection of technical papers on molecular electronics and subjects more or less related to it. Few relate directly to the construction of molecular circuits or computers.

Order Proceedings of the Third International Symposium on Molecular Electronic Devices

The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins, Norton, 1986.
A lively and readable account of biological evolution--of the amazing complexity of living things and of how this complexity can be explained. Covers modern debates on evolution from the perspective of a prominent participant.

Order The Blind Watchmaker reissue edition (September 1996)

Engines of Creation, K. Eric Drexler, Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1986.
Describes what nanotechnology is and what it will mean to medicine, economics, the arms race, and much else. The book that introduced the subject.

Order Engines of Creation

Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher and William Ury, Houghton Mifflin, 1981.
Suggests ways to improve negotiations--making them faster, fairer, more productive, and less disruptive--by focusing on principles rather than positions. Good memes to share among people working together to get things done.

Order Getting to Yes (2nd edition, 1991)

The Tomorrow Makers, Grant Fjermedal, Macmillan, 1986.
An account of the frontiers of robotics, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology told through interviews with leaders in these fields. Focuses on the wild human possibilities of the coming revolutions in technology.

Order The Tomorrow Makers

The Society of Mind, Marvin Minsky, Simon and Schuster, 1986.
An interwoven collection of ideas on thinking. Describes the mind as an intelligent system made up of less intelligent parts, themselves made of still simpler parts. Deals with a higher level of organization than simple neural networks.

Order The Society of Mind

Parallel Distributed Processing, Volume One, David Rumelhart, James McClelland, et al., MIT Press, 1986.
A good, technical introduction to recent work in neural-style computation. Describes general features of these models, specific approaches, and the results of a range of experiments on learning in neural networks.

Order Parallel Distributed Processing


About Foresight Background

Foresight Background will carry essays, question/answer sets, reference information, and other material that will not date rapidly. These materials will be reprinted for persons new to the Institute, to give them the background needed to understand and contribute to the current debates in the field.

Accordingly, your comments and criticisms can be of special value. In a conventional publication, a critical letter can at best be published in a subsequent issue. In the Background, such a letter can not only be published this way, but can later be reprinted together with what it criticizes; further, material can be directly revised to take account of the criticism (with due credit to the critic, of course). To facilitate revision, we are using this flexible publication format.

Please write to tell us what you like, dislike, or would like to see in the Background. We should note at the outset that issues after this one (Number 0) will be devoted to a far broader range of concerns than the need for organizations and our plans for the Institute!