Foresight Update 7
A publication of the Foresight Institute
Trek Spins Nanotale
For its fall premiere this year, the television show Star
Trek featured a show using the concept of nanotechnology.
As one might expect, it is not a model of accuracy. In the story,
a young crew member conducts a 'nanotechnology' experiment in
which he accidentally creates nanoscale entities capable of
replicating, evolving, living in a wide variety of environments,
working cooperatively, and even negotiating for their own planet.
This seems a bit unlikely. Flexible, adaptive, evolvable, even
intelligent self-replicating entities are presumably possible,
but constructing one would require a massive amount of hard work
and misdirected brilliance, not a mere childish accident.
Intelligence aside, even the ability to evolve is not a natural
consequence of an ability to replicate. As explained in the paper
"Biological and Nanomechanical Systems: Contrasts in
Evolutionary Capacity," naturally-occurring replicators have
been evolving for millions of years: they have evolved
to evolve. All human-built machines to date have a more rigid
architecture than that of biological systems, one which appears
to make non-trivial evolutionary change effectively impossible.
And, of course, having a specialized industrial replicator
"accidentally" acquire the ability to forego its
special fuels and molecular building blocks, enabling it to run
wild would be about as likely as having an automobile
"accidentally" acquire the ability to forgo gasoline
and oil, letting it run wild and live off tree sap. We needn't
worry about feral toaster ovens, either.
This is a crude condensation of part of one argument made in the
paper mentioned above. Copies of the paper are available from the
Foresight Institute; in the U.S. send a large self-addressed
envelope with 65 cents postage. We can look forward to many years
of hearing about "nanomachines accidentally run wild"
and "nanomachines accidentally evolving intelligence."
These easily-avoided (indeed, hard-to-cause) hazards might
usefully be dubbed "the Star-Trek scenarios."
looks at "Nanotechnology"
We have heard that the National Science Foundation recently
held a "Brown Bag" lunch meeting on nanotechnology.
Unfortunately, the topic was presented by a well-meaning but
insufficiently-informed social scientist, who had performed an
opinion survey based on an inaccurate description of the concept.
(No, it has not been proposed that all nanomachines will
be self-replicating, or that any--much less all--will
necessarily be intelligent!) Not surprisingly, the NSF
participants came away with a confused impression, reflected in
one participant's assertion that fire is an example of
nanotechnology. We hope that the next NSF meeting on
nanotechnology will include a discussion of actual proposals for
nanotechnology by someone with a technical background in the
An introductory article on nanotechnology, produced as part of
Encyclopedia Britannica's Science and the Future Yearbook
1990, is available from the Foresight Institute. This is
an excellent introduction to the topic, despite two garish and
somewhat silly illustrations and a less-than-ideal title chosen
by the editor. (Copies being given to technical people could be
photocopied to get rid of the color; the initial (and worst)
illustration could be deleted entirely.) To receive an offprint
in the US, send us a self-addressed large envelope with 65 cents
postage. Instructors can request up to 30 copies on school
letterhead. Outside the US, just send your name and address; we
know how difficult it is for you to send US currency in small
amounts. We have a limited number of offprints so it is best to
make your request promptly.
Books are listed in order of increasing specialization and
level of reading challenge. Your suggestions are welcome. If a
book's price looks too high, your library should be able to get
it through interlibrary loans--Editor
Technology and Politics, ed. Michael E. Kraft
and Norman Vig, Duke University Press, 1988, paperback, $18.95. A
collection of essays on the effects, evaluation, and regulation
of technology, giving a wide range of views. Includes an essay
coauthored by Foresight Institute Advisor Arthur Kantrowitz on
progress made on the Scientific Adversary Procedure (discussed
previously under the names 'science court' and 'fact forum').
Important reading for those who would like to participate in the
debate on how nanotechnology and other upcoming technologies
should be controlled. Nontechnical.
Encyclopedia Britannica's Science and the Future
Yearbook 1990. Includes a good 18-page overview of
nanotechnology, suitable as an introductory article for
beginners. Marred by a few garish and inaccurate illustrations
(which can be toned down or removed in photocopies); most
illustrations are good. Contact Britannica in Chicago or request
an offprint from Foresight Institute (see elsewhere in this issue
Alternative Computers, Time-Life Books, 1989,
hardcover, $15. Includes section on molecular computers and
nanotechnology with color illustrations of applications in
medicine, manufacturing, materials, and space. Part of the Understanding
Computers series; for information write Christine Wolf,
Time-Life Customer Service, 1450 E. Parham Road, Richmond, VA
Redesigning the Molecules of Life, ed. Steven
A. Benner, Springer-Verlag, 1988, paperback, $32.50. Five papers,
spanning the range from chemistry to molecular biology, develop
approaches for altering complex biological macromolecules,
focusing on the design of synthetic molecules to mimic
biomolecules. Based on the International Symposium on Bioorganic
Chemistry, Interlaken, 4-6 May 1988. Highly technical.
Journal to Watch
In our last issue we announced the new journal Hypermedia.
We've now received a review copy and can give a clearer picture
of it. Their first issue includes a broad range of material, from
abstract papers and an analysis of an existing system to book
reviews and a welcome from Ted Nelson. Although it is basically
an academic journal, it is flexible enough to publish related
material other journals might not consider: in this case, a
review of the science fiction book Neuromancer,
included for its portrayal of a world with a vast, interconnected
The Editorial Board includes some familiar U.S. names (Robert
Akscyn of Knowledge Systems, Ted Nelson of Project Xanadu, Randy
Trigg of Xerox PARC, and Nicole Yankelovich of Brown) as well as
a majority from Europe and one Australian. An extensive
bibliography is included covering the scattered and hard-to-find
hypertext literature. If Hypermedia can maintain the
quality of its first issue, it will be required reading for those
working to make the promise of hypertext a reality. Published
three times a year, 1989 subscriptions $85, contact Taylor Graham
Publishing, 500 Chesham House, 150 Regent Street, London W1R 5FA,
In Science News (4 Nov) Ivan Amato described the
First Foresight Conference on Nanotechnology, stating that
"Sooner or later, the Age of Nanotechnology ... will
arrive." Additional conference coverage is expected in The
Economist and later in Scientific American. Time
(20 Nov) mentioned nanotechnology in an article on micromachines;
unfortunately these two topics have less to do with each other
than the article suggests. The health magazine Longevity
(August) published a brief article by Joel Shurkin discussing
life extension applications.
The LA Reader (3 Nov) had a cover story on
nanotechnology by M.J. Wilcove. Update is sometimes
asked to get across the personalities of the FI leaders, but we
haven't succeeded yet. M.J.'s article does a good job of this for
two of the founders. You'll notice a few bloopers, such as my
being quoted as saying that technical audiences are
"never" supposed to shoot at technical ideas (when I
said that this is exactly what they should do), but these were
inserted by the magazine staff, not by M.J. It is a fun
We have been asked whether there is an electronic bulletin
board system on nanotechnology. Yes, there is a nanotechnology
discussion group, or "newsgroup," on the USENET system,
a large, distributed, hierarchical electronic bulletin board.
Formerly available only to those with UNIX computers, the
newsgroup, entitled sci.nanotech, is now accessible to anyone
through services such as the WELL at 415-332-4335 (voice). A
study of USENET usage indicated that about 5000 people read
In cooperation with the Foresight Institute, sci.nanotech carries most FI
publications. For further information, send email to
moderator Josh Hall
The Foresight Institute receives hundreds of letters
requesting information and sending ideas. Herewith excerpts:
The French report on Molecular Electronics is now available.
Published by the OFTA organization, it is the result of two
years' work by 28 top scientists and industrial science managers
in the field. It will be interesting if you advertise this report
under translation in English.
Moreover, I am very surprised that Foresight Update
is rather limited to West Coast and Japanese events. Nothing
about Europe where England, West Germany, France, and soon Italy
have government-supported programs. You need a correspondent in
Molecular Electronics Group
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique
Dr. Joachim is right; we have requested availability
information on the French report and will recruit a European
By now you must by very aware that the season premiere of Star
Trek: The Next Generation, an episode titled
"Evolution," featured nanotechnology medical robots
called "nanites." This widely-watched show has spread
both useful and misleading memes.
In the useful category, first comes the idea of a tiny robot,
small enough to enter and repair human cells. More powerfully,
this spreads the idea of nanotechnology itself. Another useful
message, but too weakly emphasized in this episode, was that
these tiny machines will be very useful. Finally, the useful meme
was spread that these devices also entail dangers.
The most obvious of the mistaken memes unfortunately was that the
danger comes from potential accidents (especially of "wild
runaway" scenarios), rather than abuse. This is because of
the meme that Star Trek: The Next Generation has
always tried to deliberately spread, that there is no such thing
as evil, only error. The other really dangerous meme the episode
spread was that nanotechnology will be very far in the future
(the show takes place in roughly the 26th century), but
fortunately that meme was only weakly implied.
Three further errors were also propagated. The first was a
mistaken view of how evolution actually works. This allowed the
script to include a small social message on the benefits of
cooperation. It also allowed the second technically unsound meme,
that autonomous "nanites" would be capable of rapid
evolution. The third mistaken meme was that future nanotechnology
might independently establish intelligence and a society (though
it could form the physical basis for intelligences started within
On the whole, this was not as bad a wide-spread introduction to
nanotechnology as could have happened. Given what's already out
there, the memes that we need to be trying to spread widely are:
(1) the benefits of nanotechnology, (2) the dangers of its abuse,
and (3) that we have to prepare for nanotechnology to arrive in
our lifetimes (as those unfamiliar with nanotechnology will
conceive of "lifetimes").
Garden Grove, CA
In our last issue we expressed an urgent need for an Apple
Laserwriter printer. Enthusiastic thanks go to Harry Chesley of
Apple Computer for personally donating a Laserwriter Plus: this
has made a big difference in our operations.
We appreciate receiving technical news and other articles from
Jerry Fass, Robert G. Lovell, Ed Niehaus, R. Wayne Parker, Mark
Reiners, Donald J. Sears, J. Tieber, and Jack R. Veach.
Thanks to Christos Patrinos and others who volunteered to help
transfer the FI database to a faster program.
The book Redesigning the Molecules of Life reviewed
in this issue was recommended by Tom McKendree.
Thanks to Ted Kaehler and Howard Rheingold for bringing the
Botanical Peace Corps to our attention as a possible source of
help with the BioArchive Project.
Those who helped with the conference are thanked in a separate article in this
The Foresight Institute plans to set up a new office in the
next few months, and we are desperate for equipment. We need just
about everything an office needs (save for the Laserwriter
printer recently donated by Harry Chesley). This includes desks,
desk chairs, tables, a Macintosh Plus or better Mac computer
(needed immediately), copier, phones, answering machine,
bookcase, typewriter, fax, and so on. Anyone able to donate
these, or to donate office space in the Palo Alto area, please
From Foresight Update 7, originally
published 15 December 1989.
Foresight thanks Dave Kilbridge for converting Update 7 to
html for this web page.