Foresight Update 33

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

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Inside Foresight

by Chris Peterson

Chris PetersonMost of you joined Foresight after reading the book Engines of Creation by Eric Drexler. It's a powerful book that stimulated Foresight's founding and continues to introduce new readers to this way of looking at matter, technology, and the possible futures we face.

But many of us haven't read it for over a decade, and our memories of what's in it are getting pretty hazy. I pulled it out recently for inspiration on how to get you to participate in Foresight's new online Strategic Discussions.

The big picture

We all remember that Engines makes the case that nanotechnology is coming, and sketches some powerful positive applications for medicine and the environment, and some potentially disastrous uses in coercion and abuse of power. The purpose of the book was to inspire action:

"The coming years will place greater burdens on our institutions. The principles of representative government, free speech, due process, the rule of law, and protection of human rights will remain crucial. To prepare for the new burdens, we will need to extend and reinvigorate these principles and the institutions that support them...To judge the risk of a replicator or the feasibility of an active shield, we will need better ways to debate the facts. Purely social inventions like the fact forum will help, but new social technologies based on computers also hold promise."

The "social technology based on computers" that Eric then describes is hypertext publishing. It's hard for us to believe today how much effort he had to put in just to get across the idea of links--now that we've used them, it's so obvious.

But some of what he wrote about links is only now becoming available: "Hypertext links will work in both directions, letting readers find comments on what they are reading. This means a breakthrough: it will subject ideas to more thorough criticism, making them evolve faster."

The other half of the web

Although the Web as initially implemented didn't include this feature, it does now, thanks to Foresight's CritSuite project. By using our proxy server, readers can see and make links that do work in both directions.

Even when Engines was written, it had long been obvious to those thinking about hypertext publishing that large amounts of garbage would immediately be published, and of course we see this now on the web. A solution, Eric explained, was: "Approval of a document (shown by links and recommendations) can come from anyone; readers will pay attention to material recommended by whomever they respect."

Again, since the web originally had only one-way links, it was hard to see who approved of a document. Now, using CritSuite, readers can see which authors have added favorable links to a document--and can even see exactly which part they liked. Using the graphical display CritMap, readers can see at a glance who has made positive or negative links into a document.

Of course, there are many other features we'd love to see added to the web to make it a better hypertext publishing system--such as royalties (micropayments to authors)--but we have enough, right now, to get started. Just put this string at the start of any URL, and you can use CritSuite now:

Openness & privacy discussion: you're invited

For our first discussion topic, we've chosen how new technologies in surveillance and encryption will affect longstanding standards of privacy and openness. The relevance to nanotechnology is clear--consider nanotechnological-scale surveillance--and the topic has many other advantages: people already care intensely about it, there are technical aspects that are understood by some but not by others, and those involved in this topic tend to be highly computer-literate and early adopters of new software.

You are invited to join in this discussion at Explore the site, read the source documents, make your first comment. (If you change your mind about it, you can use the "edit" button to delete it.)

Once you know your way around, perhaps you'll feel more ambitious. Engines suggests that "Authors will write pithy, exciting summaries of ideas and link them to the lengthy, boring explanations. As authors expound and critics argue, they will lay out their competing worldview networks in parallel, point by point." For example, you may not agree with the way that someone structures a chart of issues (e.g. You may decide to do a completely different chart, and link it to various other documents in the discussion.

Learning to use new tools

Even in the testing phases, we've seen that no matter how motivated someone is to use CritSuite, it's natural to slip back into using the tools we already know so well--email and newsgroups--and that's okay. New tools aren't adopted overnight; even the web itself took a while to catch on, odd as this may seem to us now.

To help ourselves get comfortable with this new toolset, use "detectors": when you are viewing a page you're interested in, hit the monitor button. Then, when someone adds a comment to that page, you'll get an email notification of the change, and can click through to see it immediately. If the email gets too abundant--i.e. if people are using CritSuite heavily on that page--it's easy to turn this feature off.

In the long term, we'll want better integration between email and web publishing. This development has already started: see CritMail on the home page.

At the close of the hypertext chapter, Eric writes: "As I have discussed, making links more convenient will change the texture of text, bringing a revolution not merely in quantity but in quality. This increase in quality will take many forms."

Foresight Update 33 - Table of Contents


Sixth Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology

November 13-15, 1998; Tutorial November 12

The conference is a meeting of scientists and technologists working in fields leading toward molecular nanotechnology. The conference will cover topics relevant to the pursuit of molecular control including:

The conference is co-chaired by Al Globus and Deepak Srivastava of MRJ Technology Solutions, Inc. at NASA Ames Research Center.

Invited speakers include 1997 Nobel Prize Laureate Steven Chu of the Stanford University Physics Department, who will deliver the keynote speech; Sumio Iijima of NEC Corporation, R&D Department Japan; M. Reza Ghadiri of Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA., and Mark Reed of Yale University.

Additional presenters will be selected by the Program Committee, comprising William A. Goddard III, Materials and Process Simulation Center, California Institute of Technology; Ralph C. Merkle, Xerox Palo Alto Research Center; Nadrian C. Seeman, New York University; and Nobel Laureate Richard Smalley of Rice University.

The National Science Foundation, which recently announced an initiative in nanotechnology, is sponsoring a forum in conjunction with the Sixth Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology: "From Scientific Discovery to the Nanotechnology of Tomorrow."

General Corporate Sponsors include Sun Microsystems, a leading maker of computer workstations, servers, and other network-related hardware and software products; Supporting Corporate Sponsors include AMP Incorporated, the world leader in the design and manufacture of electrical and electronic connectors and interconnection systems. Cosponsors include Argonne National Laboratories, Caltech Materials and Process Simulation Center, Institute for Molecular Manufacturing, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory NERSC, The MITRE Corporation, NASA Ames Numerical Aerospace Simulation Systems Division, Rice Univ. Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology, USC Molecular Robotics Lab, and the Washington University of St. Louis Laboratory for the Study of Novel Carbon Materials.

Again this year, the Conference will be preceded by an intensive one-day Tutorial on Molecular Nanotechnology. It will be chaired by Dr. Jan H. Hoh, Department of Physiology, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Additional information about the Tutorial and registration for the conference will be available at

Foresight Update 33 - Table of Contents


Recent Progress: Steps Toward Nanotechnology

by Jeffrey Soreff

Starting with this issue of Update, Jeff Soreff's "Recent Progress" column will appear on the IMM Web site: IMM Report Number 2.

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From Foresight Update 33, originally published 30 May 1998.