Foresight Update 17

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

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Policy Watch

Compiled by Jamie Dinkelacker

Central to the advance of molecular nanotechnology is progress in molecular modeling and computer-aided chemistry. Recent progress on several fronts are bringing the capabilities of molecular modeling into sharper focus. One is the rapid improvement in computational power brought about by microprocessor performance more than doubling every year. This allows molecular modeling to be executed on workstations and PCs, not just superminicomputers or supercomputers needed just five years ago.

Another development involves the easily accessible and rapidly expanding databases of molecular structures, such as Brookhaven National Laboratory's protein data bank, where researchers can build upon other researchers' modeling efforts. Advanced visualization lets researchers view larger molecules that they previously could not visualize.

More than half of all molecular modeling efforts are applied to pharmaceutical or biotech areas. The reason for this is that the economic payoff from development of just one new drug is generally much higher than that for other applications. The remaining applications are split between polymers (about 30%) and general materials (less than 20%), such as metal and ceramics.

"A number of rationally designed drugs developed with he help of computer-aided molecular design (CAMD) techniques are starting to appear," says Edwin Westbrook, head of the Structural Biology Center at Argonne (IL) National Laboratory (ANL). Many of these drugs were developed with preliminary experimental data that was obtained from x-ray crystallography or NMR-determined structures.

While computational models cannot fully replace laboratory drug tests, their use speeds up the screening of large numbers of compounds and reduces the number of animal experiments needed to validate a new drug.

Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque, NM, for example, developed a CAMD system that tailors biomimetic catalysts to industrial processes. They already have used it so create synthetic substances that mimic a natural enzyme's ability to promote reactions and can survive in harsh environments.

Parallel processing is believed by many researchers to be the path of most promise for large scale computations of molecular models including many thousands of atoms. (R&D Magazine, September 1993: 28-34).

High school enrollments in chemistry and other sciences are on the rise. Also, a recent study also finds a rise in the numbers of female and minority students in mathematics and science. These were the conclusions of July report titled "State Indicators of Science and Mathematics Education" by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). (C&EN, August 2, 1993:30)

The recent article "Advances in Electronic Publishing Herald Changes for Scientists," highlighted the emergence of on-line journals, electronic libraries, on-demand printing and the world wide interconnectivity made available by the convergence of computing and communication developments. For example, the Online Journal of Current Clinical Trials, is a peer-reviewed journal published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). OJCCT, which started in July 1992 was the first electronic journal to support graphs, tables, illustrations, and mathematical equations, in addition to high-quality text. An advantage of the electronic format is that articles are published within 48 hours of acceptance.

Chemical & Engineering News is now available on the STN International scientific and technical network. C&EN Online, as the service is called, includes articles from 1991 to the present, and is updated weekly. Articles from current editions are available on-line on Monday of each week, the day the print publication is issued, making the on-line version available more quickly to many subscribers.

The science newspaper the The Scientist is also available on-line, thus making it accessible on a more timely basis, without cutting significantly into the subscription base. The on-line version is text only, without the photos and other graphics normally used in the publication. [Editor's note, 1999: The Web version of The Scientist now features graphics as well as text. ]

There's even an on-line journal about on-line journals and related topics: the Public-Access Computer Systems Review, published by the University of Houston Libraries and distributed free on the Internet. (C&EN, June 14, 1993: 10-24)

Technical advances in Korea are facing change. The Korean Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) is seen as the "mother of technology in Korea," by Hyung Sup Choi, the first president of the Institute and a former minister of science and technology. But now, KIST must find a role in a "higher dimension," he says.

After a bright start in the 1960s and 1970s backed by South Korea's then president Chung Hee Park, KIST seems to have lost its bearing a bit in the past decade. The unsuccessful merger with KAIS did not help, nor did the government's decision to pump money into the Institute in the early 1980s when the Institute was self-sufficient. Now KIST has to depend on the government for about 80% of its funds.

The past two years, which has seen three different presidents in the institute, has also no doubt been one of some confusion and apprehension for KIST researchers. KIST has often been pressured by the government and the country to produce visible results in a short period of time, but there seems to be a growing realization that KIST should turn its attention to more basic research with applications at least ten years down the road. With this in mind, the Institute has just launched a new project. KIST 2000, which with an initial investment of 7.5 billion won (about $10 million) per year from the government, aims at developing new materials, artificial limbs and organs for medical use, intelligent robots, and new information technology by the end of the decade. (Nature, Vol. 364, 29 July1993, 377-379)

Related Technical Developments

Scanning Probe Microscopy continues to find wider applications across technological fields, especially related to semiconductors. SPMs have moved beyond simple atomic-scale picture-takers. Now, they can:

Workers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, CO, are working to adapt the SPM concept for several uses, including as a scanning potentiometer that can map electrical potentials inside integrated circuits.

Other researchers at Stanford University (CA) are starting to use an SPM with a gold-coated tip and cantilever to track ultrahigh-speed pulses as they course through microelectric devices.

At UC Santa Barbara, researchers have used an AFM as a high-resolution thermocouple by coating the AFM tip with strips of two different metals and joining them at the tip's point. This allows measuring temperature of interconnect structures to a resolution of about 0.5 micrometers. (R&D Magazine, June 1993:24-28)

Dr. Jamie Dinekelacker serves on the Foresight Board of Advisors.

Foresight Update 17 - Table of Contents


Media Watch

The November issue of Discover featured an article on diamond including an illustration of the nanoscopic diamond bearing designed at Xerox PARC by Ralph Merkle and L. Balasubramaniam. Work by Caltech's Charles Musgrave, the winner of this year's Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology, is also included.

A new public television special, entitled "The Stuff of Dreams," covers nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing as part of a look at materials science and expected future materials. The nanotechnology segment was filmed at the 1992 Foresight General Conference on nanotechnology. This show, in three parts, has already been aired in much of the US.

The December issue of Wired contains a both short piece by K. Eric Drexler on micromanufacturing in the "Seven Wired Wonders" feature, and a three page article titled "Nanotech: Engines of Hyperbole?" by Charles Platt.

The "Meta View" column in the October 25, 1993 Computerworld weekly was headlined "The Incredible Shrinking Computer" and quoted Ralph Merkle of Xerox PARC as saying that the mainframe of the first or second decade in the 21st century will be the size of a sugar cube and will execute more instructions per second than today's Cray supercomputers. Computerworld also printed an article about nanotechnology's implications for molecular computing in their August 2 issue.

In an article on scanning probe microscopy in the August 20 Business Week, Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Rohrer, co-inventor of the STM, is quoted as saying that when it comes to exploring nanoscience and the technologies that make it possible, Japan is already, "far ahead of anybody else." The article goes on to describe how scientists are using SPMs to learn lessons from nature that may help them create nanodevices.

The Detroit Free Press published a general introductory story on nanotech in their September 14 issue and Clinical Chemistry News (July 1993) describes a presentation on medical nanotechnology given by Gregory M. Fahy of the American Red Cross Holland Lab in Rockville, Md. at this year's Oak Ridge conference on Advanced Analytical Concepts for the Clinical Laboratory.

Foresight Update 17 - Table of Contents


Recent Events

On October 19 Foresight president Eric Drexler led a panel on machine intelligence as part of the Festschrift held in honor of Marvin Minsky at MIT (a festschrift is an event held to honor a leader in a given field; contributors present papers relating to the honoree's work). On Oct. 20 he gave a seminar at the MIT Media Lab on the effect of nanotechnology on prospects for machine intelligence.

Dr. Drexler spoke on "Molecular Manufacturing and Global Concerns" on Oct. 26 and 28 at the First International Symposium on Research into Artifacts held at the University of Tokyo. This conference commemorates a new Center at the University in the field of "artifactual engineering," initiated by the University's president, Dr. H. Yoshikawa. On November 16, Dr. Drexler spoke on nanotechnology at Supercomputing '93 sponsored by ACM and IEEE in Portland, Oregon.

Ted Kaehler spoke on opportunities for computer programmers in his talk "What you, a Jolt cola, a pizza, and a workstation can do at night to help nanotechnology" at the Hackers Conference on November 6. The Hackers Conference is an annual meeting of accomplished programmers and related computer professionals; it was named before the media decided to redefine the work "hacker" to imply "computer criminal."

Foresight Update 17 - Table of Contents


Nanotechnology Defined

The term nanotechnology is here used to refer to an anticipated technology giving thorough control of the structure of matter at the molecular level. This involves molecular manufacturing, in which materials and products are fabricated by the precise positioning of molecules in accord with explicit engineering design.

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From Foresight Update 17, originally published 15 December 1993.