Foresight Update 9

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

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The Japanese Lead

by K. Eric Drexler

This spring I visited Japan for eight days, gave nine lectures, and saw many laboratories. Where nanotechnology is concerned, Japanese research is impressive in its extent, organization, and direction. Japan may be somewhat weak in basic science, but it has growing strength in basic technology. What is more, Japanese leaders appear to regard molecular engineering as a very basic technology. This, together with long planning horizons, abundant capital, and a strong predisposition to interdisciplinary, technology-centered research, has had results much like those one would expect:


The magnitude of Japanese interest in nanotechnology started to become clear when I found that my first talk--initially planned as a lecture with a single sponsor--had been turned into the centerpiece of a six-speaker minisymposium covering a range of nanotechnology-related topics and hosted by the Exploratory Research in Advanced Technology program (ERATO), the Tsukuba Research Consortium, and the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). It drew an audience of twice the expected size.

The other speakers discussed natural molecular machines (such as the bacterial flagellar motor), metrology, and micromachines, but artificial molecular machines were the focus. For the first time, I met a group of researchers studying the design and construction of molecular machines--a refreshing change from my experience in the U.S., where audiences often seem surprised by the idea.

There was broad agreement at the symposium that the construction of molecular machines and devices is a natural and important goal for the future--and a goal to be pursued today. The co-organizer, Jun Miyake of MITI, spoke of the desirability of using mechanical control to guide the assembly of complex molecular systems. He welcomed my suggestion of "molecular systems engineering" as a name for work in molecular electronics and machinery, and named several major research groups in Japan heading in this direction.


One of the symposium's cosponsors, ERATO, is a program of the Research Development Corporation of Japan (JRDC), designed to support unusual research efforts. Both government and industry provide funds; contributing companies share in the research results.

The ERATO approach is unusual: each project is fully funded up front for about five years at $2-3 million per year and works toward an ambitious goal under the direction of a senior researcher. Project leaders are drawn from universities and other research organizations, including industry. A typical project has 20 researchers with an average age in their early 30s, and encourages initiative by young researchers to an extent which is unusual in Japan. A researcher is commonly loaned by a company for two years, then a new researcher is rotated in; this lets companies expose more researchers not only to the research results, but to the innovative research atmosphere.

Robert M. Lewis, an American researcher who left Shell in order to spend time at ERATO, says that Shell and many other U.S. companies are reducing long term and basic research, demanding that it be justified in terms of today's products. He reports that ERATO gives him much greater freedom in his research efforts.

The growing level of ambition at ERATO can be seen by comparing two projects. The Yoshida Nanomechanism Project ends this year; its focus has been on measurement, with the objective of furthering "nano-engineering." In contrast, the Aono Atomcraft Project, which will run through 1994, aims to use STMs to move and bond atoms to make unique materials. This project plans to use STM probes to modify surfaces with atomic precision, and to manipulate biomolecules. These goals overlap with those of the hybrid protoassembler proposed by myself and John Foster (Nature, 15 Feb 90), which I discussed in each of my talks in Japan. The construction of such a device is clearly within the scope of the objectives laid out by Masakazu Aono.

ERATO is also pursuing the construction of molecular machines patterned on biological systems. The Kunitake Molecular Architecture Project focuses on self-assembly and 3D molecular architectures. The Hotani Molecular Dynamic Assembly Project is also exploring self-assembly (and the bacterial flagellar motor in particular) with the goal of producing intelligent materials. The project ends in 1991, but its description includes some longer-term goals: the construction of "dynamic molecular machine systems" which use both self-assembly and self-repair. Hirokazu Hotani is a researcher to watch, since his objectives will advance technology along the path to a molecular protoassembler.

Nobuhisa Akabane, President of JRDC, is working to internationalize the ERATO program. Non-Japanese research organizations can cooperate with JRDC by jointly sponsoring a research project, sharing the cost and results. Individual researchers can participate through the Science and Technology Agency (STA) Fellowship Program, which brings 130 researchers to Japanese host institutes for visits of up to two years. Researchers can also swap information with JRDC through the Research Information Program. In light of the work in progress there, these are substantial opportunities.


Protein engineering is now widely appreciated as a path to the development of molecular machinery, assemblers, and nanotechnology. During my visit, Japan's Protein Engineering Research Institute announced the successful design, synthesis, and folding of the largest engineered protein to date, a de novo TIM-barrel structure containing about 230 amino acids. From a systems engineering perspective, it is of interest to know how much work this took. Questioning revealed that the initial design took three months of calendar time, but only a single researcher-month of full-time effort. The synthesis required two and one-half months of genetic engineering work. The design worked on the first try.

PERI is a unique institution. Now two years old, it has some 50 or 60 researchers aided by about 15 technicians, and is divided along functional lines into five divisions: design, synthesis, purification and functional evaluation, structural characterization, and computer support systems (with hardware including a Fujitsu supercomputer). Although U.S. scientists doing protein engineering do collaborate, there is no similar organization here. What is more, in the U.S., protein engineering is often treated primarily as a way to learn things, but at PERI it is viewed primarily as a way to build things. As an engineer, I find this promising.

PERI is not a static establishment en route to stagnation, but a project with a deadline six years from now. (Successful projects, of course, are re-launched with a new name and adjusted direction.) At PERI, a Research Director deprecated its capabilities, but he was unable to name another organization in the same class.

Tokyo Tech

At the Tokyo Institute of Technology--Japan's MIT--I found major changes in progress that will position this school for progress toward nanotechnology. For many decades, Tokyo Tech has had two major divisions: a Faculty of Science and a Faculty of Engineering. It is now adding a Faculty of Bioscience and Biotechnology, to consist of four departments: a Department of Bioscience, a Department of Bioengineering, a Department of Biomolecular Engineering and what was termed a "Department of Biostructure." The establishment of a new Faculty in Japanese university is today a rare event.

What U.S. university has a department explicitly devoted to molecular engineering? Not MIT. Japan has at least two.


Molecular machines and scanning probe microscopes are applicable to the "bottom-up" path to nanotechnology. The "top-down" approach (gradually making smaller machines) is popular, but is seldom seen as a viable path to nanotechnology; and indeed, the micromachine community in the U.S. has little interest in nanotechnology. In contrast, micromachinists from Japan showed a good turnout at the Foresight Institute's first nanotechnology conference, and invited me to speak on the topic at their Second Micro Machines Symposium; the symposium's sponsor, the Micromachine Society, financed my trip to Japan. (Special thanks are due to Professor Naomasa Nakajima of Tokyo University for his extensive work on setting up my lectures.)

Interdisciplinary centers

Research combining what Americans tend to regard as 'separate disciplines' is pursued energetically in Japan. Tokyo Tech's new faculty was mentioned above; Kyoto University's recently established Department of Molecular Engineering fits the same pattern.

The venerable Institute for Physical and Chemical Research (RIKEN) has broad-based interdisciplinary strength. Hiroyuki Sasabe, head of the Frontier Materials Research Program at RIKEN, reports that the Institute has expertise in organic synthesis, protein engineering, and STM technology (Aono of the Aono Atomcraft Project is based at RIKEN). Sasabe says that his laboratory may need a hybrid protoassembler to accomplish its goals in molecular engineering. I asked him how long it might take to develop one in his laboratory: he estimated 10 to 15 years.

How much attention is Japan giving to nanoscale systems and nanotechnology? In the suburbs of Tokyo, while visiting the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology, I was shown a multistory concrete building under construction: it will house a broadly-chartered "Nanotechnology Center."

Other countries

According to Hiroyuki Sasabe, other countries have also identified molecular systems engineering as a vital direction and acted accordingly. In Italy there is a three-year-old consortium focusing on biochips; it includes Fiat and other major companies. Over twenty companies are working together in a new Italian effort on bioelectronics. Sasabe also cited a Max Planck Institute molecular engineering effort in Germany, and a new molecular electronics project in the U.K. He knows of no equivalent projects in the U.S.


In the judgment of many researchers, molecular systems engineering--leading as it will to nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing--is among the top two or three fields in its importance to 21st century technology. Although the U.S. has great strength in relevant areas of basic science, molecular systems engineering is not primarily a scientific problem: no amount of scientific study can yield a working aircraft, and no amount of scientific study can yield a working assembler. Progress toward nanotechnology will depend on interdisciplinary technology-oriented teams guided by a vision of what molecular systems engineering can accomplish. Today, Japan has the vision and the teams. The United States doesn't.

For a variety of reasons (e.g., avoiding tensions that could spawn an arms race) the ideal way to develop nanotechnology is through an open, international program among the democracies. I advocated this when the U.S. seemed ahead; I advocate it today. Japan's Human Frontiers Research Program can serve as a model and JRDC's International Joint Research Program could serve as an initial framework. Other approaches may be superior. Regardless of organizational forms, however, to be welcome as an equal participant, the U.S. must bring to the table equal resources and commitment.

K. Eric Drexler is a Visiting Scholar at Stanford University and President of the Foresight Institute. For further information on JRDC and ERATO, write to JRDC, 5-2, Nagata-cho 2-chome, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 100, Japan; fax 03-581-1486.

Foresight Update 9 - Table of Contents


Feinberg Anxious for Policy Discussions

by Dan Shafer

Saying that, for some of the technologies involved "it may already be getting to be too late," Prof. Gerald (Gary) Feinberg urges that the Foresight Institute move forward as quickly as possible with the "broadest possible public debate" on the ethical issues involved in the ultimate implementation of nanotechnology. "We've already lost more time than we can afford," Feinberg, a member of the FI Advisory Board, said in an interview recently.

Planning and assessing the social implications of new technologies is practically a life-long interest for Feinberg, a theoretical physicist and former Chairman of the Physics Department at New York's Columbia University. In 1969, he published a book called The Prometheus Project. "Prometheus," he points out, "is a Greek word meaning foresight." Feinberg recalls predicting in the book that "In the next 50 years, there would be a number of important technological developments that could fundamentally alter the way the human race lives. The thrust of the book was that we needed foresight into what the human race and human life should be like in the future, which of these potential technologies we should foster and which we should wish to avoid."

Not surprisingly, it is the public policy formation aspect of FI that most interests Feinberg. "I have an underlying feeling," the respected researcher says, "that these questions are far too important to be left to scientists alone. Almost unavoidably, scientists' decisions are colored by their very nature as scientists. Their intent is to benefit science per se. But what might be viewed as the 'public interest' might or might not be the same thing as what is in the best interests of science."

Personal Decision

Feinberg goes so far as to say that, if he were to discover some fundamental scientific method of, for example, controlling the aging process, "I'd want to see a consensus on the underlying issues before proceeding. If I simply publish it, it is almost certain that some people would try to make use of it. It isn't possible to prevent the idea from being implemented once it's known. As an individual, I'd be inclined not to publish until I had a better sense of what should be done with the discovery." He cautions, however, that this view is "purely personal. I'm not prepared to urge this position on others."

Although he recognizes that many, if not most, of these decisions in the broader arena will have to be made on a case-by-case basis, he thinks "we should be able to work toward a situation where individual scientists aren't faced with the issue. The fundamental decisions about the future of society need to provide the framework within which scientific decisions about implementation, encouragement, and so forth, are made intelligently."

Asked if government should play some role in this process, Feinberg points out that there is a flaw in the question. "The problem is, the question assumes we already know what we want to do as a species. The thrust of my book The Prometheus Project was that we have no general agreement on where we as a species want to go. The government might play some role in the implementation of these policies, ultimately, but not in the larger planning arena."

Seeing the need for a "broad range of viewpoints" much like the discussion groups FI has proposed from its inception, Feinberg suggests that such groups as organized religion need a place in the process. "As a matter of strategy," he believes, "organized religion must play a role in this discussion. Any group that even feels it has a stake in the outcome should be part of the process."

Interest in Technology

Feinberg's interest in molecular engineering and molecular computing dates back to the early 1960s when he read about a talk by Richard Feynman called "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom." He thought the concepts were intriguing but soon moved on to other interests. Then about six years ago he was working on his book, Solid Clues, on the subject of the future of science, he decided he should include a chapter on technology while devoting most of the book to pure science. "In the process of reading stuff for that chapter," he recalls, "I ran across Eric Drexler's paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences."

Drexler and Feinberg had met much earlier when Drexler, then an undergrad, had attended the first conference on space colonies and Feinberg had also appeared there. "I was impressed that he'd gone on to a second really important idea," Feinberg recalls.

As a result of reading Drexler's paper, he purchased Engines of Creation, read it, and found it intriguing. "At some point later, Eric called and asked me to serve on the Foresight Institute's Board of Advisors. I was delighted to say yes."

What's Hot Now?

Feinberg thinks that one of the most interesting and significant areas of research that could have great importance for nanotechnologists is the research in x-ray holography going on at a number of places including Los Alamos National Laboratories. "Ordinary holography," he points out, "uses visible light in the form of optical lasers. The image they produce is similar in size to the original object. X-ray holography, however, promises the ability eventually to create holograms that we can then use visible light to see and blow up. We should be able to examine the hologram of a virus, blown up to dog size, and really see what is going on inside the structures of these tiny objects. The first x-ray holograms have already been produced. Within five years, we'll have x-ray holography with large magnifications. This will give us a way of seeing what we are doing on a nano level."

Ultimately, Feinberg thinks that this and other technologies will emerge into the area of nanotechnology applications he feels is the most interesting: the production of ultra-intelligent beings. "The combination of ultra-intelligent molecular computers and medical applications," he says, "converges at a point where I think the most difference can be made in the lives of the most people."

He just hopes we're ready to grapple with the ethical and public-policy issues that such a development will pose before it is too late to deal with them rationally.

Dan Shafer is an author and consultant in computation and emerging technologies.

Foresight Update 9 - Table of Contents


Recent Events

Ralph Merkle has given three talks on nanotechnology recently: California State University at Hayward (sponsored by Sigma Xi Research Society and the School of Science) on February 8, one for Hewlett-Packard on April 11, and a seminar for a Stanford Information Systems Lab course on May 10.

On April 3 Eric Drexler spoke on nanotechnology as the first Iles Memorial Lecture at Iowa State University. See elsewhere in this issue for his report from Japan, which included talks for Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Tokyo, MITI, Sony, Tokyo Institute of Technology, Institute of Physical and Chemical Research (RIKEN), Second Micro Machine Symposium, Japan Society for the Promotion of Sciences, Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology, and the Protein Engineering Research Institute.

Mark S. Miller spoke on Agoric Open Systems at the Evolutionary Economics meeting at George Mason University. See coverage elsewhere in this issue.

Foresight Update 9 - Table of Contents


Upcoming Events

Bootstrap Seminar, one of an ongoing series, June 19-21, Stanford University. Led by distinguished visionary and hypertext pioneer Douglas Engelbart. Special focus on the design requirements for an Open Hyperdocument System. Contact 415-725-2985.

STM '90, Fifth International Conference on Scanning Tunneling Microscopy/Spectroscopy, July 23-27, Hyatt Regency Hotel, Baltimore, MD. Sponsored by the American Vacuum Society and the U.S. Office of Naval Research. Contact Chairman James Murday, 202-767-3026, fax 202-404-7139.

NANO I, First International Conference on Nanometer Scale Science and Technology, held in conjunction with STM '90 described above. Includes investigation of fabrication and characterization of nanometer scale phenomena in surface chemistry and physics, solid-state physics, metrology, materials science and engineering, biology and biomaterials, mechanics, sensors, and electronics technology. Same contact as STM '90.

DIAC-90, Directions and Implications of Advanced Computing, July 28, Cambridge, MA, $25-$40. Sponsored by Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. Explores misuses of computing and how to prevent them. Contact C. Whitcomb, 617-891-3103.

AAAI-90, National Conference on Artificial Intelligence, July 29-August 3, Boston, MA, $160-$315. Very broad coverage of AI topics. Contact AAAI, 415-328-3123, fax 415-321-4457.

Frontiers of Supercomputing II: A National Reassessment, August, Los Alamos National Laboratory, sponsored by NSF, DOE, NASA, DARPA, NSA, the Supercomputing Research Center, and Los Alamos. Small strictly invitational meeting; Ralph Merkle will speak on nanotechnology at a session on the future computing environment.

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From Foresight Update 9, originally published 30 June 1990.

Foresight thanks Dave Kilbridge for converting Update 9 to html for this web page.