A publication of the Foresight Institute
For many months Xerox
Palo Alto Research Center computer scientist Ralph Merkle and Foresight
president Eric Drexler have
been developing computational experiments involving simple
nanomechanical systems, specifically bearings and gears. These
components are made mainly of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur,
and hydrogen. The primary tools used have been the
Polygen/Molecular Simulations molecular mechanics package Polygraf,
running on a Silicon Graphics workstation. (Autodesk's Hyperchem
software can also handle nanomechanical structures of this size.)
While the resulting static models were impressive to technical and nontechnical observers alike, a frequent question was "Can you show it moving?" Now, thanks to Ralph Merkle and the top-notch A/V staff at PARC, the models have been made into an animated sequence showing how they will move, as predicted by today's computational chemistry software. The resulting video was immediately helpful in explaining nanotechnology to audiences from the academic (Stanford, University of San Francisco, University of Southern California) to the popular ("Good Morning America" television show).
Lectures given recently include: U.S. Senate Subcommittee on
Science, Technology, and Space, White House Office of Science and
Technology Policy, International Space Development Conference,
Goddard Space Flight Center Colloquium, Stanford Mechanical
Engineering Seminar, Mitsubishi Research Institute (Japan),
International Bionic Design Workshop session on molecular
machines (Japan); by Eric Drexler. Lectures by Ralph Merkle
included the U.S. Naval Research Lab, National Science
Foundation, Universal Expo '92 in Seville, National Institute of
Standards & Technology, Professional and Technical
Consultants Association, and MIT Nanotechnology Study Group.
Nanotechnology mentions in the media in recent months have included "Good Morning America" (June 11), Longevity magazine (April), U.S. News & World Report (March 9), San Francisco Examiner (March 8), Der Spiegel (March), Xerox's Consultant Update (February), Nature (Jan. 23), Manufacturing Engineering (January).
C. Bennett (pictured at left in launch test gear) is one of the
founders of the Foresight Institute and serves on the Board of
Directors. He was interviewed by Jamie Dinkelacker in Palo Alto
on April 23, 1992.
JWD: Could you begin by telling me how your involvement with Foresight Institute came about?
JCB: I've been a friend and associate of Eric Drexler's and Chris Peterson's for a long time. We were all involved in the L5 Society, which later became the National Space Society, an organization devoted to education and advocacy of space development. I've known Eric since about 1977 or 1978 through that activity and the Princeton Conferences, a biennial space development conference series.
When we would meet, I would ask Eric what he'd been doing. One year, I believe it was 1981, he said, "Well, I've been thinking about machines, very small machines--very, very small machines." I said that it didn't sound as if it was directly related to space, "but why don't you tell me about it."
He began unfolding his vision of molecular machinery, using individual molecules as building blocks, and after thinking about it, I decided that this was such a potentially high-payoff concept--and also such a high-hazard concept, if things were to go wrong--that it justified spending a substantial amount of time working on it.
JWD: How would you describe the role that you play in Foresight?
JCB: I'm one of the Directors of the Foresight Institute. The Board is concerned with high-level strategy and oversight of the Institute's activities. As such, I think both about the future of nanotechnology and the future of the Foresight Institute as an organization dedicated to educating people about nanotechnology and stimulating discussion about nanotechnology and its consequences.
In the course of thinking about how nanotechnology may come about, I try to envision scenarios drawing on my own experiences with emerging technologies and the reaction to them by society and government, and come up with ideas on what to do next, and where we should be headed. Each of the people involved in Foresight does this but from his or her own perspective.
JWD: What are some of your hopes and aspirations for Foresight?
JCB: I would like to see Foresight be the focal point of discussion and thinking about nanotechnology and its consequences for society, for technologies of all types and all regards. I would like us to be the center of expertise that people naturally turn to for information, for advice, and for a place to find meaningful discussion about it.
JWD: What do you see as some of the short-term and the long-term goals of Foresight Institute?
JCB: The short term goals of Foresight Institute are: first, to increase awareness of nanotechnology; and second, to develop the reputation of the Institute as the focal point, as the center of expertise to make people aware, as they become aware of nanotechnology, that Foresight is a place that they can turn to for information and answers.
In the long term, the goal of Foresight is to create an environment for discussion in which the consequences of this technology and the precautions that one could take in anticipation of those consequences can be discussed in an intelligent and calm fashion.
JWD: What is it about nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing that interests you most?
JCB: There are so many different consequences, it's hard to single one out. The single most interesting thing about it is the increase in the ability of humankind to control its physical environment, in all the aspects external and internal to humans, to a much greater extent than before. And this has the promise of cutting out so must waste, eliminating so many of the bad consequences of the inadequate technologies that we are forced to work with today.
JWD: What do you see as some of these key areas of daily life that will be affected by nanotechnology?
JCB: I would say the economy, health, and ultimately the range of human capabilities. Given full realization of nanotechnological capabilities, all of these will be drastically changed: the economy by making very high-level goods and services available without the necessary large expenditure of energy and huge amount of bulk raw materials that are required today to produce a fraction of that capability; in health by intervening precisely in the medical process at the molecular level instead of the crude interventions from which we have to suffer today; and ultimately, in terms of human capabilities, I think the great advances in computation, advances in better materials and physical abilities mean that average individuals will be able to do more things; they will be empowered orders of magnitude above today's levels.
JWD: Please mention a bit about your educational background.
JCB: I was educated at the University of Michigan. My primary concentration was in anthropology with a minor concentration in political science. I started out intending to study political science, and then go to law school, but after beginning that study I became dissatisfied because the political science department, and most of the other disciplines at the University and in academia at that time were concerned with very narrow, very mechanical kinds of questions. I was interested in the broad scope of human interactions with their environment--a very wide range of human questions--and, of the disciplines, only anthropology attempted an overview and still attempted to create an integrating vision. I found this lacking almost every place else. So, I switched to anthropology even though I never had any intention of being a professional anthropologist, and I've never regretted that.
JWD: Could you say a bit about your professional background.
JCB: After spending some time in environmental and technology assessment work, I became very interested in the question of space development. I became convinced that the development of commercial approaches to space transportation was an important effort that needed to be undertaken. I became involved with a group of people, co-founders of a number of private rocket companies; the first was Arc Technologies and the second was the American Rocket Company, which still exists today.
With the first one I served as Vice President for Governmental Relations, and I spent a lot of time on the groundwork of law and regulations concerning the operation of rockets and spacecraft on a private basis, which was an entirely new and unanticipated development at the time. In the second company, during the last half of the '80s, I began as Vice President for External Relations, which included government affairs and policy work. I continued the work of trying to mesh this new creature of private space transportation with the existing institutions--the Air Force bases you had to launch from, how you would relate to NASA, how you would relate to the military, and how you would relate to regulatory agencies like the Department of Transportation.
In 1989, my business partner and cofounder of American Rocket, George Koopman, was tragically killed in an automobile accident, and I became acting President of the company and saw it through its first major test event and the consequences of that. After a period of time I decided that I wanted to spend more time on a variety of issues, including nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing, and I became a consultant to American Rocket and left full-time employment with them. I'm now interested in both maintaining active work with space and spending more time on the newer questions coming up.
JWD: Could you say some more about your involvement with the space community in general?
JCB: I was involved in the space development community before I ever became involved professionally with space. I became interested in the mid-'70s, particularly in the concepts of development and settlement of space, industrialization, and such. I followed the work of Dr. O'Neill at Princeton and a number of other people. I became involved in the L5 Society, which was one of the precursors of the National Space Society. I started attending the Princeton Conferences, joined the American Institute of Astronautics and Aeronautics, and became familiar with what you would call the "space advocacy community," which is both full-time professionals and interested non-professionals who are working out these ideas. It was particularly in the late '70s and early '80s--a very exciting time--that a lot of programs and new ideas, different approaches and suggestions, were developed and in some cases tried out. I've remained in that community ever since. As I became more professionally involved, I started spending the bulk of my time on the commercial rather than the voluntary sector, however. I'm still quite involved in the National Space Society as a member of the Legislative Committee, and I intend to stay involved.
JWD: You've recently become quite involved with CCIT--the Center for Constitutional Issues in Technology. Please fill us in on what that's about.
JCB: The Foresight Institute was founded with the intention to improve public awareness, education, and information about nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing. Part of the purpose of that was to spur debate and discussion. As this field expands, it needs to create specific foci in a number of different areas: one of those is public policy. The Center for Constitutional Issues in Technology was formed as a member of the Foresight family in order to provide a specific focus for research, thinking, discussion, and ultimately advocacy in the area of public policy.
Right now, CCIT is still going through its start-up phase. We are beginning to define a number of research projects which we feel will provide the first open discussion of policy questions in regard to upcoming issues spurred by the emergence of molecular manufacturing as a precursor to developments.
JWD: Please characterize the Nanometrics project.
JCB: The Nanometrics project is conceived as an examination of one of the very first issues that will arise as practical consequences of molecular manufacturing in regard to the governmental role. "Nanometrics" is a shorthand name for a project to examine the role of who sets standards and standards of practice in the development of new technologies. It will look at previous historical examples, examine the role that standards have played in aviation, in electronics, optics, space--a number of the important emerging fields in the past thirty to fifty years--and look at different approaches to the emergence of standards as molecular manufacturing unfolds, examining particularly what may be appropriate and inappropriate roles for government agencies in these areas.
JWD: If we could turn a leaf, what are some of your primary, personal interests?
JCB: My primary personal interests are travel, music, reading very widely but specifically in history and anthropology, and a wide range of fiction.
JWD: What are some of the materials you read regularly?
JCB: In addition to a wide range of both the general press and specific press in space and science, I try to keep up with current thinking in anthropological theory, I try to read in a wide range of historical areas because I feel that experience in the past is always relevant to what happens in the future. I read a lot of science fiction and I try to read a reasonable amount of mainstream fiction as well.
JWD: What do you do for fun?
JCB: Meet and talk with friends, travel to new places, go for walks--preferably in the mountains--and listen to music.
JWD: From your perspective, what can people do to best prepare themselves for a world formed by nanotechnology?
JCB: The single best thing they can do at this point is to get as wide a range of information as possible. If you have no background whatsoever in science, try to understand what are the basic building blocks that you have to work with, the basic forces you have to take into account. If you're interested in the policy areas, educate yourself about what's happened in the past when the government has interacted with new and emerging technologies.
In a personal and professional sense, you have to expect that you will have to be flexible. Whatever your life has been to date, if it's been very much devoted to doing one thing in one fashion, you had better learn to do a number of things in different fashions. If you've been the sort of person who's tried to have a lot of different things in your life, then you're going to be better prepared. Anything you can do to stretch your imagination--do it.
JWD: Why should people contribute time and money to Foresight?
JCB: If there's any potential for nanotechnology to come to be--and I think there's an excellent chance that it will--it's going to be a major factor affecting the conduct of our daily lives. It's important for anyone who cares what's going to happen or how it might affect you to pay attention to this, to gather information, to get involved, and try to have an effect on the outcome. Foresight is the single best place to gather information. I believe that it's the single best place to put your energies, and I'm speaking here of the whole Foresight family of organizations, depending on what your particular interests are. I think that as we've grown--we've been in formal existence since 1986--we've attracted more and more people to the cooperating network, and I've been impressed by the high quality of thinking and action that these people have shown. Every day seems to bring new, good people into our network. I think that we already have such a head start, largely because of that inflow of good people. Foresight will be the most effective place for you to both learn and to do.
JWD: Is there anything in closing that you would like to communicate to the readers of Foresight Update?
JCB: First of all, you've come to the right place. I'd only encourage you to keep trying to find out more and if you have any thing to contribute, particularly in terms of thinking, but any other type of energy or resource that you can help bring to this, you're welcome to bring it and we look forward to working with you.
JWD: Jim, thank you very much.
JCB: You're certainly welcome.
Allow me to bring you up to date regarding recent developments at Foresight. Once again, l invite you to contact me personally, preferably via email or letter, about your thoughts on Foresight and our mission to help society prepare for nanotechnology.
Foresight has refined its identifying message to "Preparing for nanotechnology." This is a more focused statement of our current mission than the previous "Preparing for future technologies."
A reminder: Foresight has developed an updated membership information form and general survey about your interests in nanotechnology. If you have not filled these out recently, please contact Foresight and request a set. These materials will aid us in better serving the interests and needs of the Foresight supporters.
We've had some response to our call for essays. Once again, we invite all Foresight supporters to submit essays on issues of nanotechnology that are particularly relevant from an individual, personal perspective. Please limit your essays to not more than five thousand words and send three printed copies. Keep your own copy in machine readable form. If sufficient interest is shown in the essay program, we will establish a review forum and gather a selected set of essays together for a future issue of either the Update or Briefing series.
We have undertaken a significant transformation from our earlier database and record keeping system into a new one in Filemaker Pro. Although this promises a significantly improved ability to respond to our supporters and individuals who contact Foresight for information about nanotechnology, we may have a few glitches along the way. So, if perhaps one or two times it happens that we have asked you to renew your membership shortly after you have sent us a check, please bear with us. These items will be straightened out in the near future and we will improve our ability to give quicker responses to everyone who contacts us.
You may have recently received a package of materials from Foresight that brought you up-to-date with the Foresight Background series. This derives from a change in our publication policy. Previously, each time that an Update was issued, the next Background in the sequence was included in your mailing. As you might guess, this created significant record keeping overhead as well as a noticeable labor and mailing burden. What we have done is brought all members current with the Background series who were part of Foresight through the end of calendar year 1991. People who have joined in the Foresight effort since then will see the completed set of the Foresight Backgrounds in a few months. Our current plans call for this collection of material to be sent to new supporters several months after they have joined, when they have had an opportunity to digest the initial materials received as part of the new membership packet.
A recent review of the Foresight database shows that we have contacts interested in nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing in forty-nine nations. These figures are a bit rough because certain modifications still need to be updated, such as national assignment for people living in areas such as the former Soviet Union or Yugoslavia. In other words, inquiries about nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing--as well as about Engines of Creation and Unbounding the Future--suggest an increased global interest in the onset of these exciting technologies.
Foresight could benefit from both financial donations and in-kind contributions such as office space, office support, and business machines. Two items, in particular, would be a great help to the Foresight effort. We would welcome donation of a plain paper fax machine to help handle the large number of fax messages received by Foresight. Also, we would benefit from a donation of neural network software, preferably Mac-based, but PC software would be fine. Naturally, we ask that it be donated in the original shrinkwrap with its manuals. The software would help us profile supporters and people who contact us such that we can better tailor our responses and materials for them.
In our last issue we reported the loss of Phillip Salin, a
long-time friend and advisor of the Foresight organizations, to
stomach cancer. The family had requested that memorial donations
be made to the Institute for
Molecular Manufacturing. A generous gift has been received
from Autodesk, Inc.,
of Sausalito, California, the parent company of Salin's American
Information Exchange Corporation. Another significant memorial
gift was received from the Electronic
Frontier Foundation, an organization promoting electronic
freedom of speech and other issues arising on the electronic
frontier. IMM's Executive Director Kathleen Shatter stated that
"We at IMM will use these memorial gifts to further
nanotechnology research, the future medical applications of which
will enable physicians to save patients such as Phil Salin, whose
loss at age 41 is tragic for the Foresight community."
[Editor's note: See Update 15 for a correction.]
Foresight president K. Eric Drexler has made the entire text
of Engines of Creation available online, in ASCII
form, through the American Information Exchange for the price of
US$10. For more information, contact AMIX at 415-903-1000; write
to 1881 Landings Drive, Mountain View, CA 94043; or email to
[Editor's note: Engines of Creation is currently available on the Web, thanks to the efforts of Russell Whitaker (see story in Update 25).]
From Foresight Update 14, originally published 15 July 1992.
Foresight thanks Dave Kilbridge for converting Update 14 to html for this web page.