Foresight Update 31

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

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Legendary Computer Pioneer Douglas Engelbart
Joins Foresight Institute Board of Advisors

Douglas EngelbartComputer science pioneer Douglas Carl Engelbart, Ph.D., has joined the Board of Advisors of Foresight Institute. Engelbart is founder of Bootstrap Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to bootstrapping organizations and institutions into the 21st Century. His career spans more than 30 years of predicting, designing, and implementing the future of organizational computing.

Engelbart is perhaps most famous for having invented the computer mouse, but its patent is only one of 20 he holds in computing technology. He is credited—among his many accomplishments—with seminal advances that have made possible many of the functions that are now taken for granted in modern computing, including hypermedia, on-screen video teleconferencing, and software features such as multiple windows, flexible view control, and cross-file editing.

"Having Doug Engelbart as a Foresight Advisor brings great strength to Foresight's work on Web Enhancement and Social Software. Doug is a polymath who pioneered the key technologies of today's interactive, networked computer systems, aiming to augment our ability to manage a complex world. Also, there isn't a nicer guy on the planet—working with Doug is a joy," said Eric Drexler, Chairman of Foresight Institute.

After finding frustration at the goal-less nature of his early work at the predecessor agency to NASA, Engelbart decided to turn his career to producing the best contributions he could for mankind. It seemed to him that the world was growing more complex, and that there would be a growing need and ungency to understand complexity. He focused upon making computers work better for people (at a time when the standard "user interface" was a punched card reader). Even in the foremost think tank of that era, Stanford Research Institute, his ideas were viewed as too visionary. When SRI ran out of funding for his work, he moved on to Tymshare, where he developed many of the components that characterize modern computing.

Since then, he has been developing, refining and implementing his Bootstrap concept to allow institutions to deal with complexity. He founded and leads the Bootstrap Institute, which offers collaborative programs and seminars by Engelbart and his staff, aimed at developing high-performance organizations, teams, and individuals. The programs explore strategy, technologies, and processes of future work environments, including Collaboration, Knowledge Management, Virtual Teaming, and Continuous Improvement and Learning.

Foresight's Advisors bring a wide variety of expertise in science, technology, journalism, and business to the organization. Through the Advisor network, Foresight reaches out to academia, industry, government, and media leaders to bring accurate information about nanotechnology to their attention, resulting in improved decision-making on coming technologies and their expected impact on society.

As a new Foresight Advisor, Engelbart joins such other broad-range thinkers as Stewart Brand, creator of The Whole Earth Catalog and The Well on the Internet (and now with Global Business Network); James Dinkelacker of Netscape Communications Corp., Professor Arthur Kantrowitz of Dartmouth College, Professor Marvin Minsky of MIT, and futurist Peter Schwartz of Global Business Network.

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Foresight Conference Available on Videotape

Videotape Cover Presentations made at the Fifth Foresight Conference on Nanotechnology are available on videotape.

With the exception of a few speakers who haven't signed releases because of intellectual property considerations, all presentations are available from Sound Photosynthesis. The company can be reached at 415-332-1533 or by fax at 415-332-1522 for a complete list of tapes and pricing information. This is a small company, so their response may be delayed by a crush of orders from Conference attendees. The company videotaped the 1995 conference as well as the recent one, so be sure to specify in your order which tapes you wish.

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Media Watch

Coverage of molecular nanotechnology moved into major general circulation media with a long article in the November 17 Los Angeles Times. David Pescovitz, a writer for Wired magazine who attended the conference, contributed a 1,500 word report on an interview with Nobel Laureate Richard Smalley, following his keynote speech at Foresight's recently concluded Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology. "By far the most intriguing thing these days for me is to make electronic circuits with molecular perfection, Smalley is quoted as saying. "It's the ultimate level of shrinkage, from microelectronics to molecular electronics. You can't get any smaller than that"

Asked how rapidly he expected molecular nanotechnology to be realized, Smalley replied, "There's no sensible way of telling right now. It sometimes helps to visualize success, and to a great extent that's what the community at this conference does. These people call for much bolder dreams to be in the brains of chemists—whose job in life it is to stick atoms together and make molecules—than traditionally those chemists would have.

"Chemists have initially thought of this field as a lunatic fringe, but now, particularly the young chemists, the graduate students and some of the younger assistant professors are saying: 'OK, I know these guys don't know how to build these things, but my job is to build molecules. Can we build it?' It seems that we are very far away from great examples. But it's characteristic of this field that that will seem to be true until some morning you wake up and there it is in the newspaper," Smalley told the newspaper.

Smalley also was quoted extensively about the barriers he sees to developing molecular assembler devices: "The two problems I often talk about are fat fingers and sticky fingers. If your dream is to have a little robot that picks up atoms and sticks them in particular patterns, you have to have fingers that are smaller than the bricks you're putting in. And you have to be able to let go. Since the fingers have to be made out of atoms themselves, they're not small enough and they're sticky. I don't know if this community (i.e. the Conference attendees) fully appreciates the magnitude of that problem."

Smalley spoke enthusiastically about the ability of nanotechnology to replace scarcity with abundance, even though he doubts a general purpose assembler can be achieved. "Nanotechnology will happen, though. This business of building stuff that does stuff on a nanometer scale is the game. This is the ultimate level of finesse of manipulating atoms in our universe," he said.

The San Jose Mercury News, which covers Silicon Valley more thoroughly than any other mass media publication, also carried a major story on nanotechnology following the Conference. Staff writer Janet Rae-Dupree covered the current state of nanotechnology research thoughtfully and with balance in her 1,700 word story.

"By fiddling with atoms and molecules—the basic building blocks of all matter in the universe—scientists hope to open doors to a new world of ultra-strong materials, machines no bigger than a few atoms and self-assembling systems capable of linking molecular arms to create everything from dust-sized computers to spacecraft that weigh no more than the family car," she wrote. "Eventually, nanotechnology could result in molecular robots that could be injected into a human body and programmed to seek out and destroy specific cancer cells, blast through plaque in arteries or attack invading viruses or bacteria."

"The proper unit of measure for 'when' is decades: Maybe half of one, maybe two or three. If we really run into trouble then 10 or 12," Conference cochair Al Globus is quoted as saying. "The number of decades is strongly a function of the amount of work we put into this."

The story reports in depth on the extensive work discussed at the Conference regarding research and computer modeling with nanotubes. It quotes New York University chemist Nadrian Seeman on the possibilities of using DNA to create scaffolding for molecular assembly, and discusses the possible "dark side" of nanotechnology (misuse and abuse), quoting Zyvex chairman Jim Von Ehr and Foresight Executive Director Chris Peterson. In all, the story is one of the most thorough yet published in general circulation media on molecular nanotechnology.

Comment: one measure of the rapid growth in nanotechnology research is the breadth and depth of speakers at the recent Conference. Another is the rapid expansion in the number of researchers who are being quoted in news stories about molecular nanotechnology. At the same time, we're less and less frequently seeing reporters create a confused muddle by mixing the concepts of molecular nanotechnology and "top down" nanoscale engineering.

Newsweek Magazine has launched a new quarterly series of special issues devoted to the millennium. One major topic in the first issue: "Get Ready for Nanotechnology." This two-page article by reporters Adam Rogers and David A. Kaplan led with a description of an assembler device that turns organic feedstock into steak, as an introduction to the concept of re-arranging molecules. "When you start thinking what you can do if you could really position atoms wherever you dream of them, it looks like a wonderful future," the story quotes Rick Smalley of Rice University as saying.

After a side trip to discuss the nearer-term possibilities of MEMS—micro-electrical-mechanical systems (see Update 29)—Newsweek's story returns to molecular nanotechnology, referring first to Richard Feynman's "Plenty of Room at the Bottom" speech in 1959, and then to Eric Drexler's initial academic publication on the subject in 1981.

The story quotes Foresight Institute Executive Director Chris Peterson saying, "If molecular machines already exist naturally, like the ones inside a cell, it's not an unreasonable goal to set ourselves to build similar systems."

But the nerves of Newsweek's reporters failed them as they envisioned the future. After reviewing recent experimental advances, including the nanoscale abacus developed at IBM Zurich, they question whether molecular nanotechnology can ever be achieved, quoting Smalley's "[concern] that a universal assembler is flat-out impossible." The story concludes, "nanotech may lie forever beyond the grasp of scientists who would usurp nature."

Comment: It is unclear, both in the Newsweek article and more generally, what Smalley means by "universal assembler." We shouldn't expect Newsweek to properly interpret this debate, still in progress, on a highly technical but relatively minor point ("universal" vs "non-universal"). Indeed, neither Foresight Institute nor most researchers in the field even use the term "universal assembler."

Foresight's Web Enhancement Project, which debuted the Web site during the Conference, also attracted media attention. TBTF, a Web-based technology journal, reported on in an article entitled, "Talking back to Web sites."

"This technology demonstration made my jaw drop," wrote TBTF reporter Sami Menefee. "Just as we were getting used to the personal publishing empowerment that the Web enables, here come a few smart people to turn the medium inside out, again."

"The Backlink Mediator might be important on the public Internet—if it catches on, if it becomes standard, if a sufficient infrastructure of annotation processors develops. It could also hasten the arrival on the Web of the "tragedy of the commons," which many of us will assert has already arrived at Usenet and is fast overtaking e-mail. It is in the context of corporate intranets that standardized, proxy-based annotation of Web pages could be a clear winner," she concludes.

If the Backlink Mediator catches on, one area of immediate impact is likely to be in the publication of refereed academic journals. Even without backlinking features, the Web is causing consternation in academic circles. The October 27, 1997, issue of The Scientist, a newspaper for life sciences professionals, carried a long front-page story discussing the "Dilemmas of Electronic Posting of Dissertations." Triggering debate reported upon in the article is a year-old policy at Virginia Tech requiring graduate students to submit their master's degree theses or doctoral dissertations formatted in HTML for publication on the World Wide Web.

Arguing basically that open electronic access is the wave of the future, supporters of the policy in academia point to the more rapid dissemination of knowledge, easier access to information in an electronic library, and the chance for universities to unlock the potential of their intellectual property. Opponents argue that mandated electronic publication could prejudice graduate students' chances of appearing in scholarly journals, some of which already are refusing to accept articles that have been posted pre-publication on the Web. Others worry that the process will make plagiarism easier.

Comment: not discussed in the article, but very much hovering in the background, are serious moves within the academic community, led by leading research universities, to create new mechanisms that would simply replace paper journals with on-line publication, at much lower cost. The Backlink Mediator could well accelerate that process.

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U. of Toronto Opens New Nanotechnology Center

The University of Toronto has announced the creation of the Energenius Centre for Advanced Technology. It is dedicated to advancing research and training students in the area of semiconductor nanotechnology for future device development. The center brings together workers in the disiplines of material science, physics, and electrical engineering. Currently it is working on joint projects with the National Research Council of Canada, the Cornell Nanofabrication Centre, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Nanomanipulator Project., it said.

Professor Harry E. Ruda of the Electronic Materials Group within the University's Metallurgical Engineering Department was named inaugural chair and director of the Centre.

The new Centre received funding from Energenius, which also will endow a new "Energenius Chair in Advanced Nanotechnology" at the University. Professor Alexander Shik was named to the Inaugural Energenius Sabbatical Chair.

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Nanotechnology Books Available from Foresight

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

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 inform@foresight. org, or download the order form.

Foresight Update 31 - Table of Contents


Senior Associates Program

The Senior Associates Program has been established to provide steady support for the research projects of the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing, and for the education and communication projects of the Foresight Institute, enabling long-term planning and commitments, and providing seed money for new efforts.

The Senior Associates Program supports vital research and education in molecular nanotechnology. It enables individuals to play a key role in advancing this technology and its responsible use through their individual or corporate contributions.

By pledging an annual contribution of $250 to $5,000 a year for five years, Senior Associates join those most committed to making a difference in nanotechnology. Benefits of becoming a Senior Associate include special publications, online interaction, and special meetings. Senior Associates will also beta-test Foresight's Web Enhancement debate software.

Foresight Institute and Institute for Molecular Manufacturing are nonprofit foundations; donations are tax-deductible in the U.S. to the full extent permitted by law. Donations can be made by check from a U.S. bank, postal money order, VISA, or Mastercard. Credit card donations may be sent by fax.

To contribute, obtain a donation form on the Foresight Institute [here, or here for secure online donation] or Institute for Molecular Manufacturing [here] Web sites, call 650-917-1122, fax 650-917-1123, or email

Foresight Update 31 - Table of Contents



Major thanks this issue go to two groups:

For adding a search capability to our web sites, thanks go to Peter McCluskey. Those of you who visit will notice many other improvements; these will be discussed in future Updates.

For ongoing development of our soon-to-come online database, thanks go to Carol Shaw (who, years ago, computerized our accounting as well).

For sending information, thanks to Jon Alexandr, Barry Cammarata, Frank Glover, Martin Haeberli, G.A. Houston, Joe Hovey, Joy Martin, Stuart Scott, and Bruce Smith.

—Chris Peterson Executive Director, Foresight Institute

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Upcoming Events

Molecular Electronics: Science and Technology, Dec. 14-18, Puerto Rico. Molecular wires, switches, devices; self-assembly; SPM manipulation. Engineering Foundation, tel 212-705-7836, fax 212-705-7441, email, and

Device Applications of Nanoscale Materials Symposium, March 29-April 3, 1998, Dallas, Texas, at the 1998 National Meeting of the American Chemical Society. "The two main purposes of this symposium are (1) to demonstrate current, innovative applications of chemistry in the nanometer size regime for use in device electronics and optoelectronics and (2) to identify potential areas for partnerships between industry and academia where research in nanoscale chemistry can be applied to emerging technologies." Invited speakers who were also speaking at the November, 1997 Foresight Conference include James R. Von Ehr II, James M. Tour, and Jie Han. For more information or abstract form, contact Dr. Sean C. O'Brien, c/o John St. John, Box 298860 TCU Chemistry Department, Fort Worth, Texas 76129, tel (817) 921-7195, email

4th Int'l Conference on Nanostructured Materials, June 14-18, 1998, Stockholm.

Superlattices, Microstructures, and Microdevices, July 27-Aug 1, 1998, Egypt. Includes nanostructures, nanotubes, self-assembly. Contact Khalid Ismail, IBM Watson, Rt 134, Yorktown Hts, NY 10598.

Fifth Int'l Conference on Nanometer-scale Science and Technology, Aug 31-Sept 4, 1998, Birmingham, UK. Contact Institute of Physics, tel +44-171 470 4800, fax +44-171-470-4900, email,

2nd Intl. Conference on Evolvable Systems: From Biology to Hardware, Sept. 24-26, 1998. Lausanne, Switzerland. Self-replicating hardware, self-repairing hardware, applications of nanotechnology. Email,

Sixth Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology, Nov. 12-15, 1998, Santa Clara, CA. Enabling science and technology, computational models. Contact Foresight, tel 650-917-1122, fax 650-917-1123, email,

Molecular Modelling in THE LARGE: bridging scales in space, time, and complexity. 1998 International Meeting Molecular Graphics and Modeling Society, Dec. 6-10, 1998. San Diego Princess Resort, Mission Bay, San Diego, California. A meeting catalysing discussion and collaboration on complex molecular systems by bringing together computational and experimental scientists working across spatial and temporal resolutions. A forum for the latest results and methods in visualizing, analyzing and designing systems from pharmaceuticals to materials science, from bioengineering to nanotechnology. Contact: Peggy Graber; (619) 784 2526;

First ELBA-Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology, spring 1999, Rome. Contact EL.B.A. Foundation, tel +39-6-35420728, fax +39-6-35451637, email

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From Foresight Update 31, originally published 15 December 1997.