Foresight Update 29

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

Foresight Update 29 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5


Inside Foresight: Paradigm Shift in Progress

by Chris Peterson

Chris Peterson As this issue of Update goes to press, we've received a June 4 media advisory from the National Science Foundation, forwarded by Senior Associate Richard Smith, about a lecture on June 16:

Nobel Laureate Eyes Nanoscale Manufacturing
In New Engineering Lecture Series

Nobel Laureate Heinrich Rohrer, inventor of the scanning tunneling microscope, will inaugurate a new National Science Foundation engineering lecture series with a talk titled "The Nanometer Age: Challenges and Chances."

Rohrer will discuss recent advances in precision nanoscale science and technology, which will permit building things molecule by molecule and heralding a class of made-to-order materials with streamlined structures and properties. Ultra precise medical instruments could permit surgeons to operate on individual cells. Materials dozens of times stronger than steel of the same weight could be produced. The ability to manipulate molecules would greatly contribute to an emerging field of science that explores how to arrange conditions so that atoms spontaneously assemble into specific molecular structures.

Rohrer and Gerd Binnig received the King Faisal Prize and the Hewlett Packard Europhysics Prize in 1984, and the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1986. Rohrer was inducted into the US National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1994. He joined IBM's Zurich research laboratory in 1963.

More information about the lecture and Rohrer is available on the Web.

As Richard commented, "This is all getting to be frighteningly mainstream! Methinks the paradigm shift has begun."

It has indeed. Consider the current list of cosponsors for this fall's Fifth Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology:

This does looks very "mainstream." The increasing frequency of these kinds of endorsements is making Foresight's leadership wonder whether it's time to move toward taking on more difficult issues and more advanced (i.e., less popular) positions on those issues.

When Foresight started in 1986, we hoped to be able to jump right into discussions of what nanotechnology and other powerful coming technologies will mean for individuals, organizations, and nations. We wanted to consider potential negative scenarios and how they might be avoided through foresighted actions taken in advance.

But the time was not ripe for these kinds of discussions. Because the scientific community was not yet aware of--much less accepting of-- the concept of molecular nanotechnology, those who tried to discuss policy based on these concepts found it almost impossible. The policy community must turn to scientists and technologists for guidance on technical questions; without that support, policy progress can't be made.

So Foresight backed off from our original strategy, focusing instead on educating the technical community on nanotechnology.

It looks as though this paradigm shift is now well advanced. When the conservative NSF uses ideas such as "building things molecule by molecule," "made-to-order materials," and cell repair, we can be fairly sure that our first task is basically completed.

What does this mean for Foresight and its sister organizations, Institute for Molecular Manufacturing and Center for Constitutional Issues in Technology? IMM's charter and strategy is not affected: conduct nanotechnology R&D, building off its strength in computational nanotechnology. CCIT's charter of public policy development is no longer premature--it can move forward. And Foresight can now revert to its original task of discussing the difficult issues raised by coming technologies, focusing on nanotechnology, but increasingly including others as well, since the various technologies will interact.

What this means is that the original analysis of Foresight's ideas--"sounds like science fiction"--will be heard again. As Gayle Pergamit and I explained in a talk we gave at San Francisco's Exploratorium for HardWired, even the most realistic technology scenarios, when projected 30 years into the future, do in fact sound like science fiction.

And we'll continue to have difficulties with the less-careful segments of the media. Our run-in with Scientific American may flare up again--though their web coverage is increasingly friendly of late. Peculiar quotes will still appear, such as the one (mis)attributed to me by the New York Times wire service, which used the word "forever" with respect to human lifespan. (In fact, it was an audience member at the Exploratorium who suggested this; Gayle and I corrected it, as shown in the videotape.)

But progress can be expected here too, as our Web Enhancement Project advances and is used for our upcoming Computer Security Debate. Great progress is being made on these, in large part due to the work of Terry Stanley, who will be developing ways of better visualizing our various debates. For more on the four-way connection between nanotechnology, computer security, web enhancement, and improved media quality, see my column in Update 27 and ongoing progress reports on the web.

1997 Senior Associate Gathering

In early May we had a "mini-Gathering" for the Foresight, IMM and CCIT Senior Associates. The reason for this modest characterization is that we had just had our annual Gathering last November, and this event in May was a transitional meeting to our new spring schedule--we expect to have these annual Senior Associate meetings in the spring from now on to avoid conflicting with the fall technical conferences. We expected that not many people would attend. Instead we got about fifty, which was an ideal size for what turned into an educational weekend party event.

Although these Gatherings are off-the-record to encourage frank exchange of views and discussion of new companies, we do have a general schedule up on the Web, and from that you'll see that we heard about Jim Von Ehr's nanotechnology startup Zyvex; we heard from Artificial Intelligence pioneer and Foresight advisor Marvin Minsky; we heard about nanotechnology in space from Tom McKendree, and at NASA Ames from Al Globus and Deepak Srivastava, life extension issues from Thomas Landsberger and, of course, some technical updates from Eric Drexler and Ralph Merkle, as well as quite a few other topics, including a presentation on "Radical High-tech Environmentalism" by yours truly. (Editor's Note: see below for a more detailed report on the Gathering.)

The real purpose of these events, however, is not only technical discussion but also the networking that goes on. There is quite a bit of discussion regarding employment and funding of new companies, and that certainly is one of the main purposes of these events from the Senior Associates' point of view.

We also got a new project off the ground at the Gathering: the construction of a physical model using CPK models of the fine-motion controller modeled for IMM by Eric Drexler. CPK models can be expensive; however, because so many companies are moving from physical models to computational models, we believe that we should--in theory--be able to find these items as a donation. There must be many sets that are no longer in use. So if you know of either a university or, more likely perhaps, a pharmaceutical company that is no longer using their CPK models, we're looking for donations of these space-filling atomic models. Eventually these will be made into a model of the fine-motion controller, for which we will need approximately 3000 atoms from the CPK model sets. If you know of CPK models that might be donated, please contact us at the office.

Hypertext Pioneer Wins Major Technology Prize

One of Foresight's favorite Silicon Valley inventors is Doug Engelbart, formerly of SRI, now of Bootstrap Institute. Doug has many inventions to his credit, including the computer mouse, but what we've always admired most is his foresighted early work on hypertext systems, including Augment. So we were extremely pleased to hear recently that Doug was awarded the Lemelson-MIT Prize, the single largest cash prize ($500,000) given for American invention and innovation.
Doug also looks forward to nanotechnology: at the award ceremony, he said "In 20 or 30 years, you'll be able to hold in your hand as much computing knowledge as exists now in the whole city, or even the whole world."

Congratulations to Doug--we couldn't have made a better selection ourselves for this prestigious prize. Join us in this wish by visiting the Bootstrap Institute on the Web and seeing what Doug is inventing today.

Web Hardware Matching Fund Needs $500

Those of you who keep up on news on the Foresight web site know that there has been a new matching fund established. Foresight is moving heavily into having advanced graphics on our web site, and working with a company called E-Spaces has helped us locate some very reasonably-priced web talent. However, there is a piece of hardware involved: we need a new computer for one of our web developers.

We're already three-quarters of the way to our goal, but we need the remaining $500 to complete the match. Please give us a call at the office at 415-917-1122 or send e-mail to if you would like to help on this project. I can tell you that the results for the Foresight web site should be quite spectacular in terms of animated molecular machine graphics, which are much more effective than words or still-shot graphics at getting across, to both technical and non-technical people, what it is that molecular manufacturing is going to be all about.

Back at the office

Those of you who keep up with Foresight's web site are aware that our long-time office manager, Judy Hill, is leaving us. She is moving on to write a book, having worked here for two years longer than she meant to (or needed to). While we wish she would stay, we understand how it is when there's a book that needs to be born. Foresight's success to date is largely attributable to Judy. No words are enough to thank her; we will miss her more than we can say.

There's only one silver lining to this cloud. Against all expectations, we've located someone to step in and try to fill Judy's shoes. Tanya Jones, whom some of you may know from Alcor Life Extension Foundation, joins us starting next week. Tanya's broad background, from her coursework in statistics, to working for a Senator, to her ongoing MBA training, make her well-qualified to make major contributions to Foresight/IMM/CCIT. Elaine Tschorn and I will need all her help once Judy departs.

Judy and Tanya

Judy Hill (left) and Tanya Jones

If you call soon, you can say good-bye to Judy, wish her well, and get her to introduce you to Tanya.

Chris Peterson is Executive Director of Foresight Institute.

Foresight Update 29 - Table of Contents


Web Enhancement Project Moving Forward

by Chris Peterson

In Update 27 we described HyperWave, a web-based software program that appeared to fulfill all the requirements Foresight has been trying to fill for years: fine-grained, extrinsic (i.e. third party), bidirectional links in hypertext publishing.

We've run into an unexpected glitch with HyperWave. It does indeed have fine-grained, extrinsic, bidirectional links; however, these links are not visible in the original document. Instead, alongside the original "target" document, the reader is shown a list of URLs to visit. If the reader follows one of that list of coarse-grained extrinsic links to the commenting document, and then follows links back from that commenting document to the target document, then at that time the fine-grained nature of the commenting links becomes apparent. That is, the commented-on section is highlighted in the target document when visited from the commenting document. This may sound a bit confusing, but the upshot of it all is that when you're looking at a document and you want to see embedded commenting links-they aren't there.

Our plans had included joining the Hyper-G Consortium in order to obtain the source code, so that we could fix any glitches that came up, such as this one. However, in the last few months the open Hyper-G code has been commercialized into HyperWave and source code can no longer be obtained, so our plans to alter it will no longer work.

One of IMM's Senior Associates, Dave Forrest, is communicating with the HyperWave company to see whether this needed feature can be added. However, we have very little influence with this company, and we can't depend on this as a solution.

When we hit this roadblock with HyperWave, we looked back at our previous options—the options we considered prior to selecting HyperWave as our first choice—and found that our preferred solution involved extending some public domain annotation code originally written by Wayne Gramlich. The term annotation is frequently used to describe what we've been calling extrinsic links or third-party comments.

Although Wayne now works for a startup company and cannot take the project further other than as an advisor, Foresight is fortunate to have located a programmer who is very interested in completing this project, and who is available full-time and immediately. This is Terry Stanley, who has a long-time interest in argumentation visualization. So not only do we expect that Wayne's code will be given a good front-end and installed on our server, but also that Terry will continue to develop this code to make some really useful and unique graphical methods for argumentation visualization. This will be of great use when we get into having real debates and find ourselves needing all the support we can get in figuring out difficult, complex issues.

Special thanks to Ka-Ping Yee, whom some of you met at the recent Senior Associate Gathering, for handling systems administration for the project.

Web Enhancement is now moving fast—stay tuned for further news.

Foresight Update 29 - Table of Contents


Senior Associates Gather to Discuss
Long-Term Consequences & Near-Term Ventures

By Jim Lewis

More than 50 Senior Associates of Foresight and IMM gathered May 2-4 at the Palo Alto Holiday Inn for what had originally been advertised as an experimental "Mini-Gathering".

Because Senior Associate Gatherings are "off the record", only a portion of what was presented can be summarized here.

Foresight Chairman and IMM Research Fellow Eric Drexler opened the Gathering Saturday morning by pointing to the "crisis in foresight" that exists today in our society as more researchers and other observers become convinced that nanotechnology is feasible, but nevertheless remain focused on short-term objectives and ignore the longer-term consequences of nanotechnology for society and for the lives of individuals. The increasing acceptance of nanotechnology as a legitimate mainstream research topic now allows IMM and Foresight to move the intellectual frontier "further west," he said. Instead of studying the next steps in the development of molecular systems technology and looking for intermediate technological payoffs, IMM can focus clearly on the long term objective of defining what systems to build once better tools for positional chemical synthesis are available. Instead of defending the feasibility of molecular manufacturing, Foresight can now speak more clearly about the profound changes that molecular manufacturing will bring. Specific examples of the latter cited by Dr. Drexler include radically improving the environment, manufacturing and living in space more cheaply than on Earth, and biostasis of currently terminal patients by cryogenic preservation in the expectation of vastly improved medical services in the future.

A consequence of the current lack of foresight is that people contemplate spending hundreds of billions of dollars to lower CO2 levels in the atmosphere, and agonize over the necessity of making "difficult medical choices", all because they ignore the profound changes to be brought by the advent of molecular manufacturing, perhaps 20 or so years from now. Dr. Drexler emphasized the necessity, when discussing such topics, of making explicit the time horizon that is being considered. Many critics of the proposition that nanotechnology will bring profound changes automatically assume a 5 to 10-year horizon for considering the future. In noting that there has been very little negative press about nanotechnology since last year's Web-based debate with Scientific American, Dr. Drexler concluded that very few critics now argue that molecular nanotechnology is impossible, but he encouraged the search for critics to identify specific challenges in developing molecular nanotechnology so that sufficient thought is applied to the problems of designing fault-tolerant complex systems. (Editor's note: see page 13 for a report on a search for nanocritics.)

Dr. Ralph Merkle of Xerox PARC described his recent work to design the complete "intermediary metabolism" of a proposed simple hydrocarbon assembler. The goal: to define a set of molecular tools (and the reactions each tool would conduct) such that a simple organic feedstock molecule could be converted by these reactions to manufacture various stiff hydrocarbons, including the complete set of tools used, producing more copies of the tools than are consumed in the process. This proposal uses butadiyne (C4H2) as the feedstock molecule, a buckytube as the binding site for the butadiyne, "vitamins" of silicon, tin, and transition metals for catalysis, and tools for hydrogen abstraction, for hydrogen deposition, for forming radicals on carbon, silicon, and tin atoms, and for inserting carbenes and carbon dimers. It is assumed that positional control of these tools is available, and that the reactions occur either in a vacuum or in a noble gas atmosphere. Dr. Merkle concluded that a hydrocarbon assembler with a simple intermediary metabolism as described should be feasible, but that more detailed calculations (including ab initio quantum chemical modeling and molecular dynamics) will be necessary to make sure that the proposed reactions will all work. Further, the design and manufacture of tools small enough to position several reactive molecular species in the proper relative orientations remains a challenge. A draft paper explaining Dr. Merkle's proposal in detail is available at his Web site. Additional information and background is available in Merkle's introductory article "It's a small, small, small, small world".

After lunch, the focus shifted to current entrepreneurial ventures. Considerable excitement greeted Jim Von Ehr's announcement that he had founded Zyvex, the first molecular nanotechnology development company, with the mission to develop the first assembler. (See accompanying story for details.)

Philippe Van Nedervelde outlined his ideas, plans and available assets for EUTACTIX, his own nanotech start-up which is presently in the early stages of formation. EUTACTIX's goal is to develop and market high-quality yet affordable nanotechnology tools and solutions via a suitable stepping stone: the sales of very competitively priced quality SPMs. Philippe is presently scouting for further partners and investors for this venture. He can be reached by email at or by phone at 32+14-88-18-63.

Turning from technology to society, Dave Krieger discussed "Technopolitics and the 'California Ideology'". He explored reasons why the Internet is more Libertarian than society as a whole, and speculated that the economics of molecular manufacturing will be similar to the economics of computing in that all levels of society will benefit. Chris Peterson elaborated upon the scenario in which molecular nanotechnology provides increasing wealth and cheap access to space so that increasingly the Earth will be reserved to support a beautiful and restored environment. She encouraged the audience, whenever possible, to debunk the mistaken notion that high-tech can mean dirty tech. Ed Niehaus discussed public opinion about nanotechnology, and how Foresight's approach towards informing the public has evolved over the past 10 years. It was suggested to make the topic more personal by publicizing the stories of the people in the field, and to make movies that depict a positive future arising from nanotechnology.

To close the first full day of the Gathering, the Senior Associates were treated to a talk by Marvin Minsky that touched on most of the significant areas of the intellectual universe. Since adequately summarizing this talk is impossible, only a few points made by Prof. Minsky are listed here:

Sunday morning Tom McKendree presented a portion of his study of the potential applications of molecular nanotechnology to the industrialization of space, discussing the advantages and limitations of solar sails and rotating tethers, and pointing out that major advantages offered by molecular nanotechnology include the bootstrapping made possible by self-replication, and the importance of self-repair in the high radiation environment of space.

Foresight and IMM Webmaster Jim Lewis discussed nanotechnology on the Web, and noted that traffic to Foresight's Web site has increased three-fold over the past year, and traffic to IMM's Web site has increased more than 12-fold (starting from a much lower base). After discussing the current Web sites, attention turned to plans to enhance the Web to make it into a true hypertext publishing system. Terry Stanley presented Foresight's current plans for the Web Enhancement Project based upon annotator software developed by Wayne Gramlich to enhance existing server and browser software. These plans are elaborated in articles on Foresight's Web site.

After another superb buffet brunch, Al Globus and Deepak Srivastava conveyed the excitement of the increasing commitment of NASA to molecular nanotechnology, particularly at the NAS Computational Molecular Nanotechnology Group, where new postdoctoral positions in both computational and experimental nanotechnology are available. They also described their recent work on "Molecular Dynamics Simulation of Carbon Nanotube Based Gears." More information is available on the Web.

Turning from near-term progress to the implications of long-term prospects, Thomas Landsberger shared his experience of the deep-seated fears that many people have upon first hearing that molecular nanotechnology will lead to significant life extension. Many people worry about how long they will have to work if they live very long lives, and about the large increase in population that might result. An aspect of longevity to emphasize is that people will live with the consequences of their actions for much longer, and that therefore much greater foresight is called for. Chip Morningstar addressed one of the difficulties faced by those trying to rationally discuss the profound changes to be brought by molecular nanotechnology: that "postmodernist" scholars in the humanities appear to judge arguments in terms of cleverness and politics, denying the existence of objective analysis of reality. He has written an essay about this topic available on the Web.

The last topic on the agenda was computer security. Dean Tribble noted that molecular nanotechnology will require very reliable software to control very complex systems. With today's software, such systems would crash, be insecure, and be penetrable. After establishing that intuition about security in the physical world is not applicable to cyberspace, Tribble briefly discussed some of the issues to be faced in making secure operating systems, leading Gayle Pergamit to comment that perhaps the major problems on the way to molecular nanotechnology will lie in the software, not the hardware development. u

Jim Lewis is a Forsesight and IMM Senior Associate and Webmaster for Foresight and IMM.

See next page for pictures from the Gathering.

Foresight Update 29 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5

From Foresight Update 29, originally published 30 June 1997.