Foresight Update 25

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

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Web Enables Effective Nanotechnology Debate with
Scientific American

by Lew Phelps

The exchange launched by Foresight Institute's response to Scientific American's April 1996 news story, "Trends in Nanotechnology," dramatically demonstrates how the World Wide Web can enable effective debate on issues of science and technology.

The outcome is a concrete example of the effect predicted in Eric Drexler's 1987 article Hypertext Publishing and the Evolution of Knowledge. Even at this early stage of its development, the web is becoming a force for higher-quality coverage of disputed topics. These higher standards will surely influence paper publishing as well.

Update 24 reported how Scientific American staff writer Gary Stix sought to debunk the scientific basis of nanotechnology through a combination of ad hominem attack and appeal to authority. Foresight responded with a comprehensive annotation of that article written by computational nanotechnologist Ralph Merkle of Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. He spotlighted the article's lack of technical support for its position, and invited Scientific American editors to respond.

See it all first-hand on the Web.
Visit, which will guide you through the various rounds of the debate. Also see Scientific American's new "Exhibit" on Nanotechnology at -- their response in Round 4, which goes a long way toward correcting the record.

They finally did so, in a lengthy letter sent May 10 that attempted to defend not only the original story but the magazine's attempt to force Foresight Institute to remove all quotations of the original article from Foresight's World Wide Web site.

However, Scientific American's latest contribution to the debate, an "Exhibit" on Nanotechnology placed on their World Wide Web site, essentially concedes the field. Of seven web site addresses (URLs) provided as links, six are supportive of Foresight's point of view, including links to scientifically notable institutions such as Caltech, IBM, and the Naval Research Laboratory. The only negative evaluation of nanotechnology included in the "Exhibit" is a link to the original Scientific American story by Gary Stix, who did not author the "Exhibit." The story, in turn, links to nothing that supports it. The reason is obvious: no credible items published on the World Wide Web support the original Scientific American story.

Foresight Institute has published the May 10 responding letter on its Web site -- again with extensive annotation to point out the logical flaws, rhetorical tricks, and continued lack of scientific content in both the reply and the original article.

The response from Scientific American Editor in Chief John Rennie and staff writer Gary Stix ends: "In his conclusion [to his rebuttal], Merkle writes, Scientific American should stop evading the fundamental technical question: given the currently accepted understanding of natural law, is nanotechnology feasible or is it not?' It's hard for us to believe anyone who has read the article would think we have sidestepped that question, but we don't mind answering it again: sorry, but far too many serious scientists say it is not." (Italics added by Update for emphasis.)

Drexler commented, "Their response really exposed the unintended message of their article - that despite all their critical-sounding words, they have nothing to say against the scientific underpinnings of nanotechnology, and can't point to anyone credible who does. The article obscured this in a cloud of opinions on other questions, and dragged in some pure name-calling. But now, cornered by a direct challenge to back up their position, they've responded with more dancing and dodging -- not making arguments, not citing arguments, not even saying what an argument on their side could possibly look like, or who could deliver it, but instead saying that arguments of some sort could be made, by someone, somewhere, someday. That's awfully close to a declaration of intellectual bankruptcy.

"The Web let us show, for the first time, that even hostile and well-connected critics like Scientific American can't deliver real arguments against our case. Their public failure is informative and valuable," he says.

As Drexler points out in his letter to Scientific American, real science is not about who wins an opinion poll or a favorable article, but rather "about knowledge of the real world and its potentialities." However, it is essential for Foresight Institute to pursue the debate with vigor. For better or worse, Scientific American has been seen as a "gatekeeper" of public opinion about what's meaningful in science.

Foresight Institute salutes Scientific American for correcting its position, and hopes to see the correction made in the paper version of their magazine as well.

Foresight Update 25 - Table of Contents


Foresight Institute Sets 10th Anniversary Celebration
Achievements will be Highlighted

by Lew Phelps

Foresight Institute reaches a major milestone this fall -- ten years of exploring anticipated technologies and educating the public about them.

To celebrate the occasion, Foresight is planning a major festivity, scheduled for Saturday, October 19, in Palo Alto, California.

"Save the date. We're expecting special guests -- people who have played a significant role in the development of the growing body of nanotechnology knowledge during the last decade," says Chris Peterson, Foresight Director. Full details will be available in the next issue of Update, and sooner via the Foresight World Wide Web site.

The ten-year celebration will focus on major achievements of Foresight Institute in the last decade.
"Ten years ago the idea of nanotechnology -- of building things by placing atoms in exactly the right places -- was not widely known or understood," says Marvin Minsky, MIT professor and member of the Foresight Institute Board of Advisors. Today this still is often confused with making things that are very small, which overlooks the special advantages of making perfect copies. Finally, though, we are seeing wide recognition that this may become the dominant direction of the material technologies of the next century. Researchers all around the globe are starting to pursue this goal. In large measure this is because the Foresight Institute has encouraged the exchange of cross-disciplinary ideas and technologies, through the intense stimulations of its communications, publications, and annual Nanotechnology Conferences."

Futurist Peter Schwartz has watched nanotechnology's growing policy-level stature during the decade. "To those who have suggested that nobody is thinking seriously about the economic and social implications of highly advanced technologies, my reply is simple: Read Engines of Creation by Eric Drexler," Schwartz says. "Through his publications and the work of Foresight Institute, Eric has done more to make people think seriously about the future of science than anyone I know." (Schwartz, who has advanced the process of scenario planning through Global Business Network, also serves on Foresight's Board of Advisors.)

In parallel, Foresight Institute has been instrumental in furthering the development of information exchange and evaluation systems that will be needed to deal with the economic and social change accompanying the realization of nanotechnology. Foresight's Web Enhancement Project is at the center of that effort, which seeks to create an effective means to debate both the technological issues and public policy issues arising from nanotechnology.

"It's been a remarkable decade," says K. Eric Drexler, Foresight Institute chairman. "When we started Foresight, researchers only dreamed of manipulating individual atoms with a scanning tunneling microscope. Artificial self-assembling molecular systems were small and scarce. Some said protein engineering was decades away, and we lacked the computational power to do large-scale molecular modeling. A global hypertext system like the Web was a great hope, but far from reality. We've come a long way in a short time, and the pace is picking up."

Commemoration of the organization's founding will include a dinner party, planned to be limited to a maximum of 70 guests to allow "intense interaction and discussion" and a preceding cocktail reception, Peterson says. The dinner cost will be $175 per person, with an additional $100 for the cocktail reception. Discounts are available to Senior Associates.

Details of the event will be available later this summer on Foresight's World Wide Web site, and in mailings to Foresight Institute members and Senior Associates. Although the 10th anniversary celebration will be held in conjunction with the annual meeting of Foresight Senior Associates in Palo Alto, participation will be open to anyone - until seating limits are reached.

Foresight Update 25 - Table of Contents


NSF, TopoMetrix and Silicon Graphics
Provide Grants To Nanomanipulator Project
at UNC-Chapel Hill

The National Science Foundation, Silicon Graphics, Inc., and TopoMetrix Corp. have provided grants to the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill's computer science department and physics and astronomy department in support of the school's Nanomanipulator Project. TopoMetrix designs and manufactures scanning probe microscopes. Silicon Graphics makes computer workstations.

Dr. Russell M. Taylor II of UNC's computer science department spoke on the Nanomanipulator Project at Foresight's 1993 Nanotechnology conference. The project is aimed at the combined use of virtual reality and scanning probe microscope technology to expand scientists' ability to manipulate matter at the molecular level.

UNC received two grants: "Development of the Nanomanipulator: A Real-Time Scanning Probe Microscope Interface for Nanometer Science" is a two-year, $460,000 program with funding from UNC, TopoMetrix, and Silicon Graphics. The other grant, "Application of High-Performance Graphics Supercomputers and Communication to Provide Improved Interfaces to Scanning Probe Microscopes," is a five-year grant for $2.3 million from the National Science Foundation.

The Nanomanipulator Project is a collaborative effort between the molecular graphics and physics groups at UNC. It will provide a radically improved interface to scanning probe microscopes, using a graphics supercomputer and force-feedback device to provide the illusion of a physical surface floating in front of the user. The project was initiated by Dr. Warren Robinett in the computer science department and Dr. R. Stanley Williams, then a professor of chemistry at the University of California at Los Angeles.

The two-year grant provides funding to build a dedicated system from off-the-shelf components. The five-year grant provides funding to explore the use of next-generation graphics and networking hardware, allowing visualization of multiple data sets simultaneously with surface topography, and the use of remote connections to microscopes.

For further information regarding the Nanomanipulator Project, contact Dr. Russell M. Taylor II, Department of Computer Science, UNC-Chapel Hill, phone (919) 962-1701, fax (919) 962-1799, e-mail: or visit the project's Web page at

Additional information about SPM can be found on TopoMetrix's Web site at

UNC physics graduate student Mike Falvo uses the Nanomanipulator system to examine a section of fruit-fly chromosome. The system combines an atomic force microscope with a virtual reality interface. The system operates over a scale difference of about a billion to one. The user can directly control the lateral position of the AFM tip; real-time force feedback indicating surface height allows the user to feel the contours of the object under study. (Image courtesy of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)
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Nanotechnology Books Available

Foresight Institute stocks for sale most of the significant books discussing nanotechnology and its potential impacts. These include:

Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing and Computation
by K. Eric Drexler
(1992, Wiley Interscience, paperback).

Nanotechnology: Research and Perspectives
edited by BC Crandall and James Lewis
(1992, MIT Press, hardbound) $39.95.

Unbounding the Future: The Nanotechnology Revolution
by K. Eric Drexler, Chris Peterson & Gayle Pergamit
(1991, Morrow, paperback) $9.95.

Engines of Creation: The Coming Era in Nanotechnology
by K. Eric Drexler
(1986, Doubleday, paperback) $10.95.

Nanotechnology Playhouse
by Christopher Lampton
(1993, Waite, softcover) $14.95.

Prospects in Nanotechnology: Toward Molecular Manufacturing
edited by Markus Krummenacker and James Lewis
(1995, Wiley, hardbound) $49.95.

Shipping and handling, and California sales tax for CA residents, need to be added. For more information, or to order, contact Foresight Institute at 650-917-1122, email, or download the order form from the Web:

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From Foresight Update 25, originally published 15 July 1996.