Foresight Update 1

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

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Opportunities for Action

Immediate Needs

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?

As a first step, please fill out your questionnaire and return it with a contribution. We need to know who you are before we can see how you can best help. Elsewhere in this issue you'll see a call for an executive director: ask yourself whether you know anyone who matches that description or comes close. Don't worry if the person is not yet interested in (or even aware of) our goals--a good candidate would be the sort of person likely to become interested. Please send us any suggestions you may have. We'll need an executive director and staff before we can use the volunteers clamoring to 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 contribution 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 all 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 nationwide 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.

Foresight Update 1 - Table of Contents



The Foresight Institute has received hundreds of letters from across the US, Canada, and Europe requesting information on our activities. Herewith some excerpts:

I have found Eric Drexler's Engines of Creation to be the most profoundly exciting and challenging book that I have ever read. As a PhD molecular biologist, currently with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center here in Seattle, I intend to follow more closely research in protein engineering from the standpoint of potential relevance to these future developments. I would be most interested in news of ongoing developments in nanotechnology.

James B. Lewis, PhD Seattle, WA

. . . Because I have a background in both artificial intelligence and biochemistry, I can easily see that Drexler's vision is very possible. I have often casually wondered if it would be possible to design novel enzymes and hormones, but I never explored the possibilities with the depth that Drexler has . . . I definitely want to keep in touch with the developments Drexler predicts. Please add me to the list.

Allen Alger Jacksonville, FL

I have recently finished reading Engines of Creation by K. Eric Drexler. I am excited by the prospects that this technology provides. It just so happens that I am currently exploring opportunities for postdoctoral research and I am interested to know if you maintain a list of investigators or laboratories in which research on molecular electronics, protein design and related fields is underway . . . .

Mark S. Boguski, PhD Washington University School of Medicine St. Louis, MO

. . . I am fascinated by [nanotechnology] for a variety of reasons as a professional archaeologist with an interest in cultural evolution, as an avocational writer, and as a witness to and participant in the wonders you describe. It is clear that the effects of this predicted revolution will be more far-reaching than any since the rise of human intelligence. . . .

Robert J. Hommon Honolulu, HI

I would like to keep in touch with developments involved with nanotechnology, as briefly outlined in Eric Drexler's book Engines of Creation. I am particularly interested in the concrete contemporary actions required to start us moving faster. . . .

Marvin McConoughey Corvallis, OR

. . . Have there been any efforts to organize a "Fact Forum" on the true dangers versus myths about the AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) disease? It seems a worthwhile project.

Michael Anzis Irvine, CA

. . . The challenge of establishing an "air tight" system for preventing a disastrous outcome to the development of nanotechnology is huge. You've broken a lot of ground in formulating conceptual approaches, but in the end sealed assemblies, burned technology bridges, public agency agreements on all levels, and every other measure reasonable in a free society may not suffice. As time passes, an assessment of how the technology develops may expose so many loopholes that the probability of disaster will be regarded as substantial. Then, it may take something in the nature of sanctuaries or refuges in which the development of countermeasures can proceed, if needed, prior to penetration of whatever barriers are provided . . . . It's the sort of thing the military will no doubt do, but with what effectiveness? And, to the benefit of whom?. . . .

Fred and Linda Chamberlain South Lake Tahoe, CA

. . . I've been an active L5er [space development advocate] and an experimental longevity volunteer for years. It's clear now that I'll need to direct much of my free energies to help with the transition to nanotechnology if we are to survive and flourish. Please keep me informed.

Phillip Jones Seattle, WA

Of all the books I have ever read, none were as stimulating as Mr. Drexler's Engines of Creation. Gerard O'Neill's 2081, while interesting, is pretty tame next to this. And 2081 did not leave me asking "What can I do?" This I hope to discover with your help now . . .

Mark Fischer Fairfax, VA

It is impossible for me to communicate my feelings of exhilaration and hope after reading Engines of Creation. Please do add me to your mailing list.

John L. Quel Bellevue, WA

I have just finished reading your book myself, and it's one of the most important books I've read in the past few years. It has changed, and is continuing to change, a lot of my most basic beliefs. . . Would you please put me on your list for the Foresight Institute--I would be interested in helping out somehow. . .

Pete Wakeman

Foresight Update 1 - Table of Contents


Nanotechnology Symposium at MIT

Hundreds of members of the MIT community were introduced to the concept of nanotechnology at a Symposium held on January 20. Sponsored by the Departments of Applied Biological Sciences, Materials Science and Engineering, Political Science, and the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the event was organized by the MIT Nanotechnology Study Group. Entitled "Exploring Nanotechnology," the Symposium's all-day format enabled participants to probe technical, political, economic, and social aspects of the technology.

The first presentation, "Overview of Nanotechnology," was given by Eric Drexler, a Visiting Scholar at Stanford University and Research Affiliate with MIT's Artificial Intelligence Lab. Drexler made the basic case for technical feasibility, sketched several possible development paths, and outlined some applications.

In "Materials Science and Protein Engineering," Dr. Kevin Ulmer summarized the state-of-the-art in protein design. Protein engineering is seen as one development path or "enabling technology" for nanotechnology. Ulmer is pursuing this path, currently as the Director of the Center for Advanced Research in Biotechnology.

Next the technical basis was explored in a panel discussion by Ulmer, Drexler, and professor Henry Smith of MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering. There was general agreement that the technology was feasible in principle, so the discussion centered around the likely length and difficulty of the development path will be.

After an argumentative lunch break, the symposium reconvened for a colorful talk on "Economic Implications" by professor David Friedman, an economist at the University of Chicago Law School. Friedman examined the na´ve and not-so-na´ve arguments for Luddism, the position that new technologies are harmful. He argued that given that events proceed on the basis of well-defined property rights and voluntary action, and if one ignores externalities and assumes that different people value wealth similarly, new technologies are guaranteed to have net benefits. Friedman also explored the question of what commodities and services would still be valuable in a world with advanced nanotechnology.

In "Society, Technology, and Policy," professor Arthur Kantrowitz of Dartmouth College explored whether nanotechnology should be developed in the open (e.g. in university labs) or in secret (e.g. in classified government labs). Advocating openness, he pointed out its value in minimizing corruption and speeding progress. In this way, the "weapon of openness" can enable open democracies to maximize their military strength while increasing public control of that strength. He argued that secrecy should be used very sparingly, and that secrets cannot be kept for a long time in any case.

Minksy observed that quantum mechanics makes systems in some ways more predictable, by putting them into distinct states

Next professor Marvin Minsky of MIT's Artificial Intelligence Lab spoke on "Thought and Intelligence." As usual, Minsky's talk was impossible to summarize. His remarks ranged from the nature of intelligence to the observation that quantum mechanics makes systems in some ways more predictable, by putting them into distinct states.

In a talk entitled "Medical and Life Extension Applications," Eric Drexler considered the use of advanced nanotechnology to diagnose and repair damage at the cellular level. Devices designed to carry out this function--combining the abilities of assemblers, disassemblers, and nanocomputers--he terms cell repair machines. These devices could be made far smaller than a cell.

Drexler also addressed the controversial question of timing and abruptness of the nanotechnology breakthroughs. He pointed out that it would be risky to ignore either slow or fast scenarios. Abrupt or quick scenarios demand attention even if one doesn't think them likely.

In a final panel discussion, Kantrowitz, Minsky, Drexler, and Friedman discussed the "downside" of nanotechnology, including destabilizing military applications of replicating assemblers. Various destabilizing, dangerous scenarios were sketched, which Minsky found pursuasive while Friedman did not. Kantrowitz pointed out that these problems would be lessened by a policy of openness on our part. Again the abruptness issue came up: Drexler's point here was that an abrupt scenario is not so unlikely that it is safe or prudent for us to ignore its possibility. (He has promised to write an essay on this subject for the Foresight Institute.) After extensive informal discussions with members of the audience, the speakers and NSG members departed to enjoy a well-earned Chinese dinner.

Two follow-up discussions were held later in the week to help those new to nanotechnology consolidate their knowledge. These were well-attended--despite abominable weather--and participants got a chance to pursue more advanced topics.

A side benefit of the Symposium was that attendee Claudio Gatti, a reporter for the Italian newsmagazine Europeo, interviewed Eric Drexler for a four-page article on nanotechnology which appeared in the February issue. The article also featured the work of Dr. Ulmer of CARB and Dr. Forrest Carter of the Naval Research Lab.

The Symposium was thoroughly recorded on audio and videotape, and the MIT NSG is exploring the possibility of transcribing the audio portion to produce a Proceedings publication. Inquiries can be directed to: Christopher Fry, MIT AI Lab Room 702, 545 Technology Square, Cambridge, MA 02139.

The MIT NSG formed in January 1985 after Eric Drexler presented a lecture series on nanotechnology. (A similar group is forming at Berkeley.) The Foresight Institute would like to thank all the NSG members who helped with the Symposium, with a special round of applause for organizers Chris Fry of the AI Lab and David Forrest of the Materials Science Department.

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From Foresight Update 1, originally published 15 June 1987.