Foresight Update 23

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

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Hughes Aircraft Study of "Revolution in Military
Affairs" Sees Possible Role for Nanotechnology Devices

Hughes Aircraft Company foresees a looming revolution in military technology, strategy and the nature of warfare. Nanotechnology may well play a significant role, the company says in a recently released report.

Revolution in Military Affairs, published in June 1995 and authored by Foresight member Tom McKendree, concludes that emerging technologies - as so often in the past - will reshape the way nations use force to achieve national goals. And, as has so often happened in the past, current military establishment leadership embraces new concepts slowly and grudgingly, often viewing radical ideas merely as threats to existing hardware programs.

The Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) will be driven by advances in surveillance systems, precision-guided munitions, and information technology, the study says. (The report cautions that there's no guarantee of one and only one revolution.)

With respect to nanotechnology, the study cites Eric Drexler's Nanosystems and says, "A final technical trend is increasing fine control over matter. Manufacturing technologies are producing ever-smaller features. The clear limit to this trend is atomic scale features. At the same time, there are already ways to manipulate matter at the molecular level. These technologies are becoming increasingly general and powerful. These trends seem to converge on an ability to perform digital material processing (DMP). This would involve processing matter the same way computers process information, at the lowest level, using massive numbers of small, high-speed mechanisms. The result would be an ability to process matter with a speed, reliability, complexity and flexibility similar to that with which computers process information. Given the power of computers, and the fact that "matter" is at least as general a phenomenon as "information," one would expect DMP to be as broadly significant as digital information processing. If information processing is the key to the [generally accepted RMA scenario], DMP would likely be the key to a subsequent RMA.

"There are several possible development paths for digital material processing. It is unclear which will succeed first, and thus prediction when DMP might be developed is uncertain.

"Current trends are no guarantee of future performance, but they are useful anchors to begin thinking about what might happen. If current trends continue, then indications are that DMP would be developed somewhere between 2010 and 2020, with 2015 as a reasonable estimate.

"Developing DMP may run into significant difficulties, delaying deployment. On the other hand, if developing DMP has significant first mover advantages, then when it gets closer there may be large, well-funded efforts to develop it. This dynamic might significantly shorten the development period."

Foresight Update 23 - Table of Contents


Media Watch

The University of Southern California Chronicle, published for the faculty and staff of USC, led its October 9 issue with a story on "Manufacturing the minuscule." The story reports on a multi-university research team led by USC chemists Larry Dalton and George A. Olah. Other universities participating include Caltech, the State University of New York at Buffalo, Cornell University, and North Carolina State University. "They will research new techniques to create working devices with dimensions measured in nanometers - one billionth of a meter," the Chronicle reported.

The U.S. Department of Defense has earmarked $6.65 million over the next five years for the project, which will focus its efforts on a nano-scale computer memory device. The project draws from material science and chemistry disciplines, using the scanning tunneling microscope to manipulate molecules one-by-one and build memory devices with a "dendrimeric" structure, so-called because of its branching nature, derived from dendron, the Greek word meaning tree.

The group is working to design a new substance than can function much like hemoglobin in blood cells, mimicking its ability to first pick up and then easily give up an oxygen atom. The new substance will carry information rather than oxygen.

In August the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) televised a 30-minute program on "Big Science" on its Channel 2. A third of the program was devoted to coverage of nanotechnology, in the form of an interview with author Ed Regis, whose book Nano was published earlier this year to mostly favorable reviews. (See Update 22.) The piece mentioned Eric Drexler, explained the principle of nanotechnology, and then considered the likely consequences, mainly in food production and the possible elimination of unskilled work.

The Woodland Hills, CA Daily News in July carried a perceptive and accurate description of the Idea Futures site on the Internet ( and extensively quoted Robin Hanson of Caltech, who first unveiled the concept in 1990 while a visiting fellow at Foresight Institute. "Standard institutions for punditry are defective," the article quotes Hanson. "The consensus you perceive in media is biased, and tends to be extreme. Academics have similar problems. The idea is to have a fair way in which you can reward people who are good predictors and discourage people who are lousy predictors."

Scientific American published an article in its October 1995 issue on "Quantum-Mechanical Computers," written by Seth Lloyd of MIT. He discusses the limits of size reduction in conventional computer electronic circuits - "At [the] scale where bulk matter reveals itself as a crowd of individual atoms, integrated circuits barely function. Ten times smaller again, the individuals assert their identity, and a single defect can wreak havoc." He discusses logic gates designed to rely on the ability of individual atoms to affect the quantum state of neighboring atoms. "Quantum logic gates, wired together, could make a quantum computer," he says. "Needless to say, quantum 'wires' are hard to build." His following discussion seems not to be informed by the growing body of knowledge on molecular nanotechnology; he focuses on larger-scale mechanisms to convey quantum information.

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The Fourth Annual Foresight Nanotechnology Conference, November 9-11 in Palo Alto, was a huge success; citing those who made it possible could consume this entire column, but special recognition for their efforts goes to:

We're grateful to Jon Garber of Connectix for donation of one of their marvelous little golf-ball sized video cameras, helping us move into the world of multimedia.

Thanks to Lew Phelps, who returns as Guest Editor for this issue of Update. He seems to be taking on a role akin to that of Carlo Maria Giulini, who for many years was "Principal Guest Conductor" of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Lew is Founder and Principal of Phelps Consulting Group, a corporate public relations and strategic planning consulting firm located in Pasadena, CA. His interest in nanotechnology arose through his relationship with Global Business Network, which participates significantly in Foresight Institute affairs.

Thanks to Russell Whitaker of Silicon Graphics for getting Eric Drexler's hypertext publishing essay onto the Web; see the link from Foresight's home page ( Thanks also to Russell and to Wayne Gramlich of Sun Microsystems for joining the Web Enhancement discussion at the 1995 Senior Associate Gathering (see more in the next Update).

Thanks to the following for their always-valuable help providing paper and electronic newsclips, information tidbits, counsel and commentary, and other items of interest: Jon Alexandr, Arlen Andrews, Michael Colpitts, Douglas Denholm, Joe Doyle, Dave Forrest, Robin Hanson, Tom McCarthy, Tom McKendree, Jack Powers, Bryan Shelby, Jeffrey Soreff, Steve Vetter, Caroline Wagner, Gunter Wittenberg. This is a partial list only; the flood of information is increasing. Please keep it coming.

-Chris Peterson

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Recent Events

The Los Angeles Nanotechnology Study Group met Nov. 1 on the west side of the Los Angeles, after two years at Caltech. The move was intended to "give a long overdue break to the UCLA folks" who have been enduring cross-town rush-hour traffic, says group head Tom McCarthy, whose residence at USC puts him halfway between the other two Los Angeles area campuses with major nanotechnology interests. Those interested in the latest plans of the Los Angeles group should point their Web browser to

The group held its first meeting in December 1993, and has been holding monthly meetings since. Meetings are usually held on Thursday evenings at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, with the program divided between technical and non-technical interests. The technical portion has been devoted to chapter-by-chapter discussion of Dr. Eric Drexler's Nanosystems.

Dr. Tanya C. Sienko, a researcher at the National Institute for Science and Technology Policy in the Science and Technology Agency (STA) of Japan, spoke in Tokyo in September on "The Track of Japanese Nanotechnology Efforts: Present, Players, and Possibilities."

Dr. Sienko's interests and research lie in nanotechnology, where she has been gradually starting to provide a link between groups in the U.S. and Japan. She told the audience that in Japan, most so-called nanotechnology research should be reclassified as micromachine research. The work is being carried out by interdisciplinary groups in government laboratories supported by MITA and STA, and at universities. Large Japanese corporations are also interested, but mostly consider nanotechnology (in the U.S. sense) as only a research topic at present. She said Japan's lack of small companies with "blue-sky" ideas may inhibit breakthroughs, and that there are possible repercussions from the biochemical research of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, which is accused of the nerve gas poison attacks in the Tokyo subway system and other terrorist-like activities. She also discussed the lack of links between nanotechnology and biotechnology in Japan.

Dr. Sienko spoke on the same topic at Foresight Institute's Fourth Annual Nanotechnology Conference in Palo Alto in November.

Notice to Study Groups: In our next issue Foresight Update plans to begin regular publishing of meeting information for selected local nanotechnology study groups. To be included, please send information about your local group (name, meeting schedule, location, contact point for more information, and Internet URL if applicable) to Chris Peterson at Foresight Institute ( with a CC to Update Guest Editor Lew Phelps (

Dr. Ralph Merkle of Xerox PARC is scheduled to chair a session on nanotechnology at the 3rd International Conference on Anti-Aging Medicine and Biomedical Technology at the Alexis Park Resort in Las Vegas, NV, December 9-11.

The conference is co-sponsored by the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine (A4M), University of Minnesota, and Oklahoma State University. It is described as "an opportunity for the general public, scientists, and the press to learn about the pioneering work in this emerging specialty by respected clinicians and researchers. It addresses significant breakthroughs about reversing the detrimental effects of aging and is a forum for diverse disciplines."

Cornell University's Science and Technology Magazine devoted most of its 32 -page Spring 1995 issue to the subject of nanotechnology. Included in the issue are articles discussing the scientific aspects of nanotechnology, the social and economic issues, and a day in the life of a nanotechnology student. (See on the Web

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Upcoming Events

Anti-Aging Medicine & Biomedical Technology, Dec. 9-11, Alexis Park Resort, Las Vegas, American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine. Nanotechnology session chaired by Ralph Merkle on Dec. 11. Tel 800-5BIOCON, fax 301-652-4951.
29th International Conference on Systems Sciences, Jan 3-6, 1995, Maui. Sponsored by IEEE. Includes nanotechnology plenary by Eric Drexler. Email or call Foresight, 415-917-1122, fax 415-917-1123.
Organo/Molecular Electronics, Jan. 29-31, 1996, San Jose, CA. Sponsored by IBC Conferences USA. Includes scanning probes, self-assembly, structure-building with DNA. Tel 508-481-6400, email
Science Innovation '96, Feb 9-12, Baltimore. Sessions on DNA Computing and Quantum Computation. Contact AAAS, tel 202-326-6450, fax 202-289-4021,
Computational Molecular Nanotechnology Workshop, March 4-5, NASA Ames. Current state-of-the-art computer simulations for nanotechnology applications. Contact Marcia Redmond, 415-604-4373,,
Structure Controlled Macromolecules of Nanoscopic Dimensions, symposium within Materials Research Society Meeting, April 8-12, 1996, San Francisco. Includes nanoscale assemblies and nano-devices. Tel 412-367-3004, fax 412-367-4373, email, Web
Nanotechnology lecture for Smithsonian, Washington, DC, by Eric Drexler, date in spring '96 to be announced in later Update.
Workshop on Computational Nanotechnology, July 11-13, Colorado Springs Marriott. Contact after Jan. 1: Sally Meyer, 719-389-6437,

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From Foresight Update 23, originally published 30 November 1995.