Foresight Update 27

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

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Directors Corner :
Critical Discussion Experiment to Begin on Web

by Chris Peterson

Foresight Institute has a special interest in systems to improve the evolution of knowledge and to enhance the quality of discussion and decisions on complex issues. Currently there is no good way to carry out such discussions: paper is too slow and inconvenient, while Internet discussions - whether they be in the form of newsgroups, static web pages, or chat sessions - are too unstructured.

Our Web Enhancement Project aims at adding features to the World Wide Web needed to better carry out critical discussion. These features have been described in the essay "Hypertext Publishing and the Evolution of Knowledge" available on the web and on paper from the Foresight office.

Hyper-G has true hypertext publishing features

We had originally thought that this would require Foresight to produce the needed software, but fortunately this has become unnecessary by the introduction of Hyper-G by an international team (originating, as did the web itself, in Europe). Hyper-G, known as HyperWave in its commercial version, has almost all of the features on our wish list for hypertext publishing, because it was based on the early concepts of hypertext from Ted Nelson, and also explicitly designed for structured discussion:

Hyper-G client software is available for UNIX, Windows NT, Windows 95, and is in preparation for the Macintosh. A line-oriented terminal version of the client is also available. However, the UNIX client is the most advanced, and can be run under the operating system Linux on Wintel machines, as Foresight plans to do.

Partly because they include commerically-useful features such as subscriptions and licensing, Hyper-G or Hyper-G spinoffs are already in use at publishing companies such as Springer, Academic Press, Wiley, and Oxford University Press. It is also used extensively by the European Space Agency.

Foresight's experiment

Foresight can experiment with Hyper-G without betting on its long-term success as a standard. The goal is to use the basic capabilities of second-generation hypertext publishing systems by building information structures with real content. This content could later be transferred to another system that provides the same basic capabilities. Foresight hopes to show the usefulness of the advanced hypertext publishing features listed above: we may be instrumental in spreading these back into the World Wide Web as a whole. Thus, our efforts don't depend on Hyper-G and HyperWave commercial success, but on how well we demonstrate the feature set.

Computer security debate

Our first experimental debate will be in the field of computer security, specifically language and operating system security: how can we maximize cooperation without vulnerability? We will start by examining Java-style languages. This topic has several advantages for an initial debate:

The funds for Foresight's Hyper-G server were raised at this year's Senior Associates Gathering. This machine has now arrived and is being configured by Russell Whitaker, technical leader of the project. We will be putting in a skeleton argumentation structure, and then inviting specific security experts to join the debate one by one. The reason for this controlled build-up of participants is that we expect to encounter glitches in the process which will have to be solved using social rules, rather than the procedures we can enforce using the software. We will also have to evolve filtering procedures.

Once it's clear that the debate software is working well, and we are being successful at adding needed social rules, we will open up access to the debate first to Senior Associates, later to Foresight members and some relevant professional groups, and eventually to the general public.

This computer security debate is only the first of many Foresight plans to conduct on advanced technologies of public policy importance. We hope that the debate procedures we evolve can be of use to those debating other topics as well-including "messy" human issues.

Hyper-G information sources

Those interested in assisting the project at this stage can start to familiarize themselves with the software by reading the book HyperWave: The Next-Generation Web Solution (by Hermann Maurer, Addison Wesley, 1996; available free online and by installing the client software available
free online ( or

See the FAQ at You may also join the discussion group comp.infosystem.hyperg, or join its mailing list mirror by sending email to with the message body: subscribe hyper-g <Your Name>

Next steps

In addition, funds are needed immediately to pay for

  1. Foresight's client machine, about $3,900
  2. people's time in organizing the project, tech support to targeted experts, and uploading reference documents
  3. $500 membership fee for Foresight to join the Hyper-G Consortium, and thereby become eligible for R&D grants from the Consortium; and eventually
  4. our own connection to the Internet when we outgrow our shared high-speed (T1) connection..

In the longer term, we invite all Foresight members-and eventually all web users- to join us in debate online. We believe that full hypertext publishing capabilities are a breakthrough equal in importance to the invention of the library. No other tool is sufficient to deal with the complex problems to be solved in successfully implementing nanotechnology and the other advanced technologies now on the horizon.

For project updates, visit our web site. Donations may be discussed with Chris Peterson at or tel 415-917-1122, or mailed to Foresight Institute, PO Box 61058, Palo Alto, CA 94306 USA, and are tax-deductible in the U.S.

Special thanks to Russell Whitaker for technical leadership; and to those who donated funds for the server machine: Hughgie Barron, Ken Blakeslee, Steve Burgess, Warren Freeman, Dan Fylstra, Jim Lewis, David Lindbergh, Joy Martin, Chris Portman, Gary Pullar, Dick Smith, and J. Tory.

Foresight Update 27 - Table of Contents


Anonymous Donor Pledges $40,000 Matching Grant
For New Senior Associates and Increased Donations

A generous anonymous donor has pledged up to $40,000 in matching grants for new Foresight Senior Associates and increased donations by current Senior Associates.

The donor has provided a $5000 matching grant for every ten new Senior Associates Foresight can obtain between now and the end of January 1997, up to a $40,000 maximum. It will also apply to upgrades on any Senior Associate memberships, and to any one-time donation of cash or stock of $100 or more. (Stock donations may provide special tax benefits if your basis is lower than the current market value of the stock; consult your tax advisor for details.)

This means that every new Foresight Senior Associate dollar donated between now and the end of January, 1997 the organization will get two more immediately. You can make your new donation dollars go three times as far as they otherwise would!

Call Foresight Institute with your new or increased donations at 415-917-1122, fax your pledge to 415-917-1123. Or email Your donation will make a big difference--three times what you give.

Check our World Wide Web site for progress toward the goal.
The deadline to qualify for this two-for-one matching grant is January 31, 1997.

Foresight Update 27 - Table of Contents


Senior Associates Gathering
Covers Wide Array of Topics

By Lew Phelps

Foresight Senior Associates gathered at the Holiday Inn Palo Alto October 18-20 for serious discussion, playful estimating of future timelines, and excellent food and conversation.

For fun, participants marked their name badges with guesstimates of when the Feynman Grand Prize will be awarded. Estimates ranged roughly from five to fifty years, and in precision from decade bandwidth to single-day definitiveness.

Foresight Chairman Eric Drexler opened the proceedings with a discussion of "Where we've been, and where we're going."

"Just 100 years ago people were arguing whether atoms existed. Decades later the idea of macromolecules (such as protein) was still controversial. By the time of the 1959 Feynman talk, people were working 'top down' and others began to work on molecular stuff in biology. That meant, in effect, that we had biologists studying machines. They were not looking at things from an engineering point of view. To consider the consequences of that, imagine aeronautics if airplane design had remained a sub-branch of ornithology," he suggested.

"The 1970s tossed out much of our vision of the future--space expansion, intelligent machines, etc.-- and brought a new focus on Limits to Growth. Despite mankind's long history of things getting better and resources getting cheaper, thinkers in the 1970s were advocating a contrary direction." Meanwhile, Drexler had begun to think about programmable molecular machines as an answer to such negative thinking. That culminated with the publication, ten years ago, of Engines of Creation.

The book had unintended consequences, Drexler admitted. "I made a big strategic mistake in assuming that the science community would understand non-mathematical description and discussion. Scientists simply could not accept it. So eventually I wrote Nanosystems with a different heuristic--it had to have lots of math, be heavy, and look like a textbook. It also had to be useful to somebody entering the field, and intimidating to potential critics," he quipped.

Looking ahead, Drexler said, "Today; we as a society are confused about matter, space, time, and mind. Matter: people say we're running out of resources, but nanotechnology changes that. Space: people say we're running out of space, but space exploration removes that limit. Time: we're all supposed to be dying, but with nanotechnology we'll be able to keep youthful physiologies. Memory is mainly structure, and we can maintain it. Mind: with nanotechnology we can make machine intelligence systems a million times faster than our brains."

"We'll have an infinite supply of people who are willing to say it can't be done, right up to the day it happens," he said. "So we can spend all our time between now and the technological singularity arguing with the ignorant, or we can talk with people who do understand and move things along."

Among the many other speakers at the gathering:

Al Globus described the impressive and growing team at NASA's Ames Research Center devoted to computational nanotechnology (see the article in Update 26). "NASA has a goal of eventual establishment of permanent, self sufficient settlements in space," he said. This opens new possibilities for molecular manipulation. Chemists have added a wide range of molecular fragments to buckyballs. This would add chemical functionality to the excellent physical characteristics already demonstrated.

Jim Lewis and Ted Kaehler discussed current interesting research work. Kaehler described Bruce Smith's proposal to assemble three-dimensional arrays of proteins attached covalently. "How do we get them to find each other in a pool of water and get them to attach?" Kaehler asked. "One proposal is to attach single stranded DNA to each cubic protein molecule, then dump in another batch with complementary DNA. This has the effect of pressing these things together; there is a clear path to making this happen."

Jim Lewis described Richard Smalley's new nanotube probe tip, a multiwall carbon tube about 5 nm in diameter. "And now they're talking about a single wall nanotube glued on to the end of that," he said. This opens new possibilities for molecular manipulation. Chemists have added a wide range of molecular fragments to buckyballs. This would add chemical functionality to the excellent physical characteristics already demonstrated.

Computational nanotechnologist Ralph Merkle of Xerox Palo Alto Research Center provided a fascinating historical tour of proposals in the early 1800s for mechanical computers. "Babbage even considered binary, but rejected it. Another guy named Fowler designed a digital machine whose active elements were sliding rods that could be in one of three positions, so it required less precision than Babbage's [decimal] design. There was this entire group of people swapping ideas about mechanical computers, and they just vanished from history. By 1850 electrical relays were in use. What would have happened if anyone in that group used relays? Did we miss getting started with computers by a century?" (The concept of mechanical rod logic computers at the molecular scale was first advanced by Drexler in Engines of Creation.)

"I conclude that the march of history depends very much upon individuals-- people who put ideas together," he said.

Public relations consultant and Update Editor Lew Phelps presented an analysis of the Scientific American debate conducted on the World Wide Web. "This is the first known example of anyone using the Web to successfully rebut an erroneous article in a major print publication," he said. "We'll see more of this in the future. You no longer need to own a printing press to have a public voice." A related discussion by public relations consultant Ed Niehaus and author Gayle Pergamit on communicating nanotechnology concepts led to a lively group discussion sharing concepts and experiences related to communication matters.

Resources for nanotechnology research continue to emerge. Among those discussed, Foresight Webmaster Jim Lewis provided a tour of the nanotechnology-related sites on the World Wide Web. Richard Terra discussed his forthcoming "State of the Field" Report on Nanotechnology. Russell Whitaker described encouraging developments supporting Foresight's Web Enhancement goals. (For details on the latter, see Chris Peterson's column.)

Senior Associates Gatherings are open to all Senior Associates-- those who pledge donations at various levels from $250 to $5,000 a year for five years. Interested persons should contact the Foresight Institute offices (contact information, Senior Associates Membership Application).

Foresight Update 27 - Table of Contents


Photos from Senior Associates Gathering

Mike Pique and Warren Freeman examine Pique's computer
generated plastic and layered paper models
of protein molecules during the Senior Associates Gathering

Senior Associates test their skills at a Hands-on Molecular Modeling session.

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From Foresight Update 27, originally published 30 December 96.