Foresight Update 12

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

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Nanotechnology Race:
MITI Adopts 'Bottom-Up' Strategy

by Chris Peterson

Recently we reported on the different research strategies being pursued in Japan: The Science and Technology Agency (STA) was pursuing a "bottom-up" approach, in which very small structures are built up from molecular components using, for example, scanning probe microscopes. In contrast, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) continued the more traditional approach of using semiconductor technologies to make increasingly small structures, such as quantum dot and quantum well devices. We portrayed this competition in David-and-Goliath terms: the giant MITI looked likely to be overtaken by the underdog STA.

Now that bet is off. MITI has launched its own "bottom-up" effort, and as usual its plans are ambitious: it is described by the journal Nature as "part of a massive move by MITI to promote research into nanotechnology." Most of the former Industrial Products Research Institute in Tsukuba is being converted into a new interdisciplinary research center, under the supervision of the Agency of Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), an arm of MITI. Half of this new organization will be devoted to nanotechnology, termed an "atom factory," working "at the level of atoms and molecules with scanning tunneling microscopes, atomic force microscopes, and other devices for working at the nanometer level," according to David Swinbanks in Nature (9 May 1991).

In addition to this novel research direction, the center will be introducing new ways of organizing the research, some adopted from the successes seen at STA. STA's innovative and prestigious Exploratory Research in Advanced Technologies program (ERATO) puts together a team of reseachers, funds them for three to five years, and then evaluates progress and reshuffles the team and leadership positions. MITI will be adopting this procedure for the nanotechnology work. Researchers will be brought in from other AIST labs, private industry, universities, and overseas. Non-Japanese scientists will participate in planning as well as in later stages of the projects.

The new center still must be approved by a fiscal agency, but this is confidently expected by AIST. Meanwhile, as Nature reports, "MITI officials are now sketching out a large-scale project that, with the collaboration of dozens of companies, will plough hundreds of millions of dollars into the development of 'angstrom technology.' " The plan is to link this with the 'atom factory' in Tsukuba.

So the race is on, but it has changed: formerly "bottom-up" vs. "top-down," now it has become MITI vs STA, both pursuing the molecular approach. Perhaps soon other countries and companies will join in to create projects that are both interdisciplinary and international.

Foresight Update 12 - Table of Contents


IMM to Fund Molecular Manufacturing

E. Lynne Morrill, Executive Director, has announced the founding of the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing (IMM) in Palo Alto, California, by a group of professionals and scientists dedicated to advancing the technology of molecular manufacturing. Molecular manufacturing, or molecular nanotechnology, is defined as "manufacturing via molecule-by-molecule control of products and byproducts using positional chemical synthesis." Many members of the global scientific community believe that this upcoming technology will replace most current manufacturing methods within the lifetime of the baby-boom generation.

Other world leaders in technology are moving rapidly toward molecular manufacturing. Japan has already founded a nanotechnology research center at a leading university, and has several other projects underway, all under government sponsorship. Nanotechnology must develop through interdisciplinary interaction, as it utilizes physics, chemistry, molecular biology, computer science, and other fields.

IMM will: (1) fund seed grants to scientists for research and development; (2) act as an interdisciplinary clearing-house for U.S. and international developments in technologies and processes leading to molecular manufacturing; and (3) disseminate educational materials and sponsor seminars on molecular manufacturing.

IMM's Board of Directors consists of:

"This Board brings both business and technological expertise to IMM," says Morrill, herself a veteran of fourteen years in scientific administration and business management. IMM's Scientific Board of Advisors will represent a broad range of disciplines. "Our start-up funding gets us on track toward making molecular manufacturing happen. We are now asking individuals, corporations, and foundations for tax-deductible contributions to further the state of the art in this cutting-edge technology," explains Morrill. IMM will publish a newsletter three times yearly, and will have a limited number of advance copies of the new book, Unbounding the Future: the Nanotechnology Revolution (fall 1991, William Morrow & Co.) by Eric Drexler, Chris Peterson, and Gayle Pergamit, available to its donors. IMM has programs available for both private and corporate sponsorship.

Information about IMM can be obtained by writing to the Institute at 555 Bryant Street, Suite 253, Palo Alto, California 94301, by calling 415-852-1244, by sending a fax to 415-852-9098, or by sending email to

[Editor's note: The above phone numbers and email address are out of date. Instead use:
tel. 415-917-1120; fax. 415-917-1123; email:]

Foresight Update 12 - Table of Contents


Policy Watch

by Stewart Cobb

This column frequently reports on research efforts driven by scientific curiosity or notions of economic gain, but advancement of military technology is a powerful motive as well. Accordingly, the U.S. Army is beginning a program of nanotechnology research. Over the next four years, the Army will award almost $1 million to "develop the theoretical, modeling, and experimental tools to optimize manipulation of materials on the nanoscale." This program will investigate atomic-scale effects using laboratory-sized equipment, establishing a knowledge base which could contribute to the later development of true molecular manufacturing. Military research tends to be more focused and "practical" than pure science; this program may well produce the sorts of engineering numbers needed for the design of molecular machinery. The program does not appear to be classified, although follow-on research might be. [Department of Defense University Research Initiative Multidisciplinary Research Program for Fiscal Years 1992-1996, Feb 91, p10]

A Science feature describes a multidisciplinary research project which might serve as a model for research teams pursuing nanotechnology. The project found a way to make three-dimensional "movies" of a live, beating heart using a modified magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner. The movies are so detailed that they could greatly improve the treatment of heart attack patients. According to Science, the team consisted of "cardiologists, radiologists, electrical engineers, biomedical engineers, a mechanical engineer, and a physicist, each with his own research interests." The project worked because it could be separated into interesting subprojects, one for each researcher. The success of the collaboration depended on a single leader with broad overall knowledge of the project, who could show each researcher how his or her work connected to the whole. [Science, 251:28-30, 4Jan91]

Similar collaborations have been taking place within the vastness of the U.S. government, guided by a body known as the Federal Coordinating Council for Science, Engineering, and Technology (FCCSET, pronounced "fix-it"). For example, scientists researching global change were directed to a century of detailed tree-growth records buried within the Bureau of Indian Affairs. FCCSET has so far created three high-visibility, multi-disciplinary programs: one to study global climate changes, one to improve science and math education, and one to boost supercomputer performance. Each program is headed by a committee made up of Cabinet officials and agency heads, and each presents a unified program and budget to Congress. The politically inevitable result: these programs, with combined funding of almost $3 billion, sail through the budget process that blocks so much other research. FCCSET's chief, D. Allan Bromley, expects to add several more programs to next year's budget request. Such a program seems like an appropriate vehicle to jump-start nanotechnology research in the U.S. [Science, 251:737, 15Feb91]

A commentary in Nature takes molecular biologists to task for concentrating on techniques of experimentation rather than the goals of their science. According to Walter Gilbert of Harvard University, the biology community feels that sequencing a gene "by hand" in the lab is the only valid way to do research at present. These biologists fear the introduction of gene-sequencing machines and comprehensive genetic databases, because these tools will make their painfully acquired laboratory skills obsolete. Gilbert's point is that such skills are not themselves science, but only means to pursue science: "The questions of science always lie in what is not yet known." Molecular manufacturing could provide vastly improved tools for sequencing DNA; if more biologists follow Gilbert's lead, they may begin actively seeking such tools. [Nature, 349:99, 10Jan91]

Stewart Cobb, an aerospace engineer, was an early member of the MIT Nanotechnology Study Group. He serves as president of the new Molecular Manufacturing Shortcut Group, 555 Bryant St. Suite 253, Palo Alto, CA 94301; it is a special interest group within the National Space Society focusing on space applications of nanotechnology.

[Editor's note: The current mailing address is: Molecular Manufacturing Shortcut Group, 8381 Castilian Drive, Huntington Beach, CA 92646.]

Foresight Update 12 - Table of Contents


IBM Sees 'Bottom-up' Path

IBM Chief Scientist and Vice President for Science and Technology, J. A. Armstrong, spoke at the Symposium on the 100th Anniversary of the Birth of Vannevar Bush. His theme was "The Continuing Triumph of Miniaturization." Among his remarks were these: "I believe that nanoscience and nanotechnology will be central to the next epoch of the information age, and will be as revolutionary as science and technology at the micron scale have been since the early 70's... Indeed, we will have the ability to make electronic and mechanical devices atom-by-atom when that is appropriate to the job at hand." (Creativity!, June 1991, Vol. 10, No. 2, pp. 1-6)

Foresight Update 12 - Table of Contents


Upcoming Events

STM '91, International Conference on Scanning Tunneling Microscopy, August 12-16, 1991, Interlaken, Switzerland. Contact Ch. Gerber, fax (1) 724 31 70.

Second Foresight Conference on Nanotechnology, Nov. 7-9, 1991. Invitational technical meeting sponsored by Foresight Institute, Stanford Dept. of Materials Science and Engineering, University of Tokyo Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology, Institute for Molecular Manufacturing. For researchers in enabling science and technology. Contact 415-324-2490; fax 415-948-5649.

Science and Technology at the Nanometer Scale, American Vacuum Society National Symposium, Nov. 11-15, 1991, Seattle, WA. Contact James Murday, Code 6100, NRL, Washington, DC 20375-5000; fax 202-404-7139 (or American Vacuum Society).

Ecotech, Nov. 14-17, Monterey Conference Center, $500/$250 nonprofit. Participating organizations include Apple Computer, CPSR, Econet, Foresight Institute, Global Business Network. Will explore the technologies of ecology and their application; see article elsewhere in this issue. For businesspeople, scientists, environmentalists, public policy makers. Includes a talk and workshop on nanotechnology. Contact Mike Whitacre, 619-259-5110.

Hypertext '91, Dec. 15-18, San Antonio, TX. All areas of hypertext research. Contact 409-845-0298, fax 409-847-8578, or email

Third Conference on Technology, Entertainment & Design, Feb. 20-23, 1992, Monterey, CA. Confirmed speakers include Stewart Brand, Jaron Lanier, Paul Saffo, John Sculley, Edward Tufte. Great fun, but expensive. Contact 619-259-5110; fax 619-259-1495.

DIAC-92: Directions and Implications of Advanced Computing, May 2-3, 1992, Berkeley, CA. Sponsored by Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility and ACM. Includes civil liberties, privacy. Contact Doug Schuler, 206-632-1659, 206-865-3832,

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From Foresight Update 12, originally published 1 August 1991.

Foresight thanks Dave Kilbridge for converting Update 12 to html for this web page.