Foresight Update 20

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

Foresight Update 20 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5


Media Review: Future Quest on Nanotechnology

by Gayle Pergamit

Gayle Pergamit, co-author of Unbounding the Future, gives us her viewpoint on a recent success in explaining nanotechnology to a general audience.

In a blazing half-hour, they mix Nobel Laureates with stand-up comics, accurate STM images and flame-breathing 1950s sci fi movie monsters, lucid scientific and business explanations with movie clips from Terminator II...and somehow manage to provide a highly accurate, understandable, scientifically precise, amazingly complete explanation of nanotechnology: its history, current work, potential products, promises, and perils.

In its one-of-a-kind style, it's Future Quest. The half-hour whirlwind future-looking PBS television show aired its nanotechnology segment during November 1994.

"The science community appreciates nanotechnology," said producer Kathleen French. "We wanted to bring the story to the nontechnical audience. Our goal is making the science user-friendly."

How well did the nanotechnology story succeed? "It generated very, very strong interest," said French. The two hundred plus requests per month she receives for videotapes of the series come from places as diverse as--in the case of the nanotechnology show--schools, the Air Force, entrepreneurs, the Navy, filmmakers George Lucas and Leonard Nimoy, and Wall Street brokers. "It's one of the most popular shows we've done."

If Nanosystems is your bedtime reading, Future Quest will not add to your knowledge of nanotechnology. But faced with the task of accurately introducing complex scientific concepts and implications to a nontechnical audience, Future Quest does the job beautifully. And how intellectually intimidated can anyone be watching the scene where an enthusiastic fifth grader explains nanotechnology to his classmates?

Future Quest's trademarks include a wry sense of humor, a real commitment to scientific accuracy, and rapid-fire, creative visual effects. According to French, its aim is to combine the scientific accuracy of PBS with the rock & roll and comedy of MTV and Fox. Geared for the young contemporary viewer, the humor in the visual clips takes the intimidation out of high tech for the non-technical. Using comedians as commentators provides useful insights, and, says French, "voices what the audience is thinking." It certainly helps avoid the possibilities of pompous prognosticating. The use of self-important 1950s Space Age black-and-white footage often serves as a whimsical reminder, says series Senior Science Advisor Timothy Ferris, "of how hard it is to predict the future."

With cartoon and film stock footage, flashy bits taken from old commercials, and their own special effects sequences, FutureQuesters create not just models of technical processes, but also visual metaphors and analogies that convey complex concepts in a visual flash and make "editorial comments" along with the accurate technical content. Their custom look emerged from a problem: no money. "It started as a limitation," French recalls. "On a PBS budget, you have to be very creative. So we put a team of five funny, fun people searching full time through major film libraries." Sifting through cartoon archives and libraries of foreign commercials, they emerged with visual treasures that can look as if they were created specifically to describe nanotechnology. Two cartoon clips stand out: one of Lilliputians carrying the massive Gulliver and another 1930s style cartoon in which hordes of ants form themselves into a single machine to convey the idea of many nanomachines forming one smart material or larger machine system.

"You've mixed science and pop culture perfectly," "rock & roll meets science," and "a perfect translation of Wired magazine" is how viewers described the series. Somehow, the mix works. The humor doesn't detract from technical accuracy or factual richness of interviews with MIT professor and Foresight advisor Marvin Minsky, Nobel laureate in chemistry Kary Mullis, IBM physicist Don Eigler, as well as Eric Drexler and Ralph Merkle.

A visit with physicist Don Eigler in his STM lab at IBM gives a remarkably personal and hands-on feel of Eigler's experience of working with atoms, as he describes the sense of intimate knowledge gained after "a morning pushing on an atom. You get to appreciate how stubborn they can be and how big an atom actually is when you can go around to the right side of it, or you can go around to the left side of it, or you can go on top of it."

Charles L. Owen and his Masters candidates at the Design Center of the Illinois Institute of Technology provide a sense of homey concreteness as they explore the implications of designing homes and home furnishings with smart materials.

And the program doesn't shy away from difficult areas, from the potential large-scale dangers to unfamiliar territory such as science fiction writer Greg Bear on the self-referential dilemmas of how "We would have complete control over our physical shape and the design of our minds. And when we have control over the design of our minds, we are literally making decisions about how to make decisions."

How did they manage the mix so well between science and art, fact and metaphor?

Tim Ferris of University of California at Berkeley and Senior Science Advisor for Future Quest describes himself as a science writer focused primarily on physics and astronomy. Despite multiple decades of experience in media, Ferris rarely agrees to participate in television or film projects these days because the likely outcome is that the project will not be scientifically sound and the process of dealing with uncooperative producers is "a bloodbath. You get a lot of calls [from producers] saying they want to be scientifically accurate. But there's a movie tradition that one's own imagination is superior to the truth. It's a Scholastic attitude to knowledge," he says.

Not so with Future Quest. Ferris gives credit to the high quality of the production team, whom he describes as "very committed to getting things right and to being faithful to the facts" and the impressive integrity of its producers. It also seems to be integrity backed by education, because the Future Quest team includes a strong showing of people with scientific backgrounds.

For the technically knowledgeable viewer, there's no problem distinguishing between actual STM footage, scale-accurate molecular models, and special-effects fantasies. How well does the nontechnical viewer fare? "My work in the rough cuts was to avoid juxtapositions that would be confusing," says Ferris. He points out that maintaining the orientation of the viewers and allowing them to discriminate between factual images and fantasy images during "rapid cutting is a familiar problem." Still, a nontechnical viewer--particularly a younger student--would probably benefit from a knowledgeable friend playing tour guide through the visual barrage.

The students may be getting those tours. Kathleen French notes with satisfaction the large numbers of schools requesting copies of the videotapes.

French also notes how different the world has become in the brief time between the start of the project and today. "When we began work in September 1993, it was hard to find people who could talk about nanotechnology. Now I've just come back from a conference at University of California at Irvine, and everybody there is talking about building molecular devices."

To quote series host, Jeff Goldblum: "Wow."

Transcripts of the program can be downloaded from the Future Quest directory at their WorldWideWeb site: [Editor's note: This resource seems to be no longer available on the Web.] To request information about buying a videotape of the segment, send your name, address and phone number (optional) to: Future Quest, Producers Entertainment Group, 9250 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 205, Beverly Hills, CA 90212. [Editor's note: See correction in Update 21.]

Thanks to Marie-Louise Kagan for sending us her tape of the show.

Foresight Update 20 - Table of Contents



"If you think of a redwood tree or a whale, you know, nature doesn't build those things by sub-assembling six or eight big parts of a whale, the tail and the fins, and then putting them together into a whale. It builds from the molecular level on up--that's how all life works."

Timothy Ferris, professor of journalism, UC Berkeley

"You're starting to deal with the smallest granules of matter...and make stable structures out of them. The possibilities are incredible."

Kary Mullis, Nobel laureate in chemistry

"We can imagine what things might be like in the future, and if we have the possibility of building things from the bottom up, then that opens up a tremendous range of possible structures and materials."

Don Eigler, IBM physicist

"Twenty years from now you will see the beginnings of desk-top factories: a little trace of natural gas, a few trace chemicals, some software, and individual devices will come out one at a time, with essentially no pollution, almost no energy consumption. "

Peter Schwartz, president, Global Business Network

"Imagine very complex materials which--in a funny sense--are not materials, but collections of machines, except from our scale they look like a material. And yet...because they're machines they can sense and act, so that the material itself in our scale can change in sophisticated ways. You can image some of the things in movies like Terminator II really happening--materials 'morphing,' changing into different forms."

Charles L. Owen, Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology

"The most hopeful book I've read in ten years is Eric Drexler's Engines of Creation."

"The question of whether it's realistic is not an issue. The question is when does it happen. And all of the indications are that it's going to happen sooner than we might have anticipated, i.e. the precursor technologies are already there, those of control and manipulation and sensation."

Peter Schwartz, president, Global Business Network

"Anything you can clearly define, you can build with nanotechnology devices, once you have them."

The whole idea is to reduce the size of a machine to molecular dimensions. If you can do that, you can do all sorts of things."

Charles Sheffield, Chief Scientist, Earth Satellite Corporation

Foresight Update 20 - Table of Contents


Media Watch

The Financial Times (October 7, 1994), calling it "a technology that promises to affect virtually every aspect of our world," quotes Eric Drexler: "We are talking about a technology that is inevitable, a technology that will have a greater impact than the industrial revolution on a much shorter timescale, yet we are doing nothing to prepare for it." Ralph Merkle calculates that "if you chart these [development] rates as straight lines, they all converge in the 2010 to 2020 timeframe."

Foresight advisor and M.I.T. Prof. Marvin Minsky, leader in artificial intelligence, writes provocatively in the October 1994 Scientific American, "eventually, using nanotechnology, we will entirely replace our brains. Once delivered from the limitation of biology, we will decide the length of our lives...and choose among other, unimagined capabilities as well." Referencing his book The Society of Mind, Minsky explores the nature of intelligence and the mechanics of nanotechnology-based extensions adding capacity and capabilities to human bodies, brains, and lives.

NBC News celebrated New Year's Eve with a segment featuring Eric Drexler of IMM and Ralph Merkle of Xerox PARC doing nanotechnology research. On medical nanotechnology, Merkle said, "for the first time we'll be able to intervene at the scale where the damage actually occurs and reverse the injury." Physicist Don Eigler, whose work at IBM Almaden was described as "pointing the way" to nanotechnology, said "You've got to get excited about that."

American Biotechnology Laboratory, December 1994, calls nanotechnology "the next opportunity for biotechnology," and "the next major grass roots startup in science." They describe the plenary lecture given by Ted Kaehler of Apple Computer at the 1994 Oak Ridge Conference. Commenting on self assembly of molecular structures, the article observes: "Sound fantastic? I said the same about printed circuit boards."

Business Week's September 19, 1994, issue features Ralph Merkle of Xerox PARC, Palo Alto, where "ever-cheaper computing power is transforming research, even allowing scientists to build nano-machines atom by atom."

The September 5, 1994, Chemical & Engineering News reported on "noted expert in nanotechnology" Eric Drexler and his talk at the American Chemical Society National Meeting focused on environmentally benign chemistry, or green technologies. Drexler is quoted: "Because molecular manufacturing will rely on direct mechanical control of the trajectories of individual reactive molecules, it will enable unprecedented control of the products and byproducts of chemical processes." C&EN describes nanotechnology as offering "the potential for efficiency, high productivity, high-product quality, low resource consumption, and avoidance of unwanted emissions."

The September 22, 1994, Nature article "Japan Builds on Global Lead in Nanotechnology" surveys current funding, projects, participants, and progress. Although the article includes discussion of top-down as well as bottom-up nanotechnology work, it serves to underscore the Japanese commitment to nanoscale R&D and to early commercialization.

In the October 1994 JOM (formerly Journal of Metals), Senior Associate Dave Forrest reports on Foresight's 1993 nanotechnology conference, Computer-Aided Design of Molecular Systems, providing cogent summaries of the main talks and panels.

The work of USC's Leonard Adleman using DNA for computation received widespread coverage in which the media sometimes labeled it as "nanotechnology" or a "DNA computer." While it is an interesting and very clever experiment in using molecular methods to solve a computational problem, the system described is not a general-purpose computational device (i.e., not equivalent to a Turing machine).

Wired magazine, the hippest of high-tech hip publications, evidently agrees with Foresight that nanotechnology has become "obvious." In their November 1994 "Tired vs. Wired" list (i.e., trends that are Out vs. In), nanotechnology is declared "tired." We look forward to nanotechnology's continued progress from chic concept to daily reality.

--Gayle Pergamit

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From Foresight Update 20, originally published 1 February 1995.