Foresight Update 34

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

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Inside Foresight

by Chris Peterson

Chris PetersonWith nanotechnology being funded by the National Science Foundation,, bragged about on IBM's home page, conferred on by the U.S. Army, and favorably featured in Business Week, the field has clearly gone mainstream. Finally.

So Foresight has moved on from the early, simple message of "yes, it's scientifically possible" to the harder issues of how, when, who, and where. Can we identify preferred initial conditions for development? What about access, control, safety?

These are tough questions, and we don't pretend to have complete answers. Some views draw broad agreement: Open development appears preferable to secret. International development appears preferable to one-nation-dominance.

But those of us willing to look so far ahead, and so abstractly, are few. We need to pull many more thinkers into this discussion, and we've found a way to do it: on the web, through our new online discussion tool, CritSuite.

Technology, openness, and privacy

Our first critical discussion is on Openness and Privacy [] and how these are affected by advancing surveillance and encryption. The topic is of immediate, urgent interest; technologically based; and merges seamlessly with the broader issues of freedom and security in an age of nanotechnology.

As a test of the tool and the topic, I posted a draft review of David Brin's new nonfiction book The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Technology and Freedom? It quickly attracted dozens of comments, corrections, and suggestions for improvement -- marked at specific points on the draft, for me and the whole world to see. It was easy for me, as author, to adopt the corrections I agreed with, respond publicly to those I disagreed with, and post the improved draft.

The comments I accepted dropped to the bottom of the page when I updated their target; the rest stayed on the draft, enabling readers to see these criticisms (and some compliments) of my views. I learned new points from my readers and incorporated them into the draft with amazing speed. It made the process of critical discussion -- which can be slow and laborious-- fast, even fun. This could be addictive.

The results of this group effort will appear in the October issue of Reason magazine, which should be arriving on newsstands as you read this Update. The review gives the URL for the online discussion, so newcomers will be adding comments over the next month or so. They'll do better if we give them many strong contributions as models and targets for response -- and the folks most qualified to provide those are you.

So you're invited to log on, right now, to and start marking up the discussion with your views. To add a comment, hit the comment button. You then can input text directly, link to another web document, or both.

You're also invited to a talk I'm giving in Palo Alto on this topic November 24; watch our web site or call later for details. Foresight's chairman, Eric Drexler, will include this topic in his November 21 talk in San Jose for the Annual Conference on Technology & Society, sponsored by Cato Institute and Forbes ASAP.

Let's all thrash this out

You may have other questions about Foresight strategy, and now there's a quick, easy way to challenge it and change our sense of what is worth doing. Get on, pull up this column from our web site, and mark it up publicly with your comments. I'll get automatic email from CritSuite, letting me know of each new comment.

It's fortunate that we have this tool now, as action continues to heat up in nanotechnology. Those years that start with 20__ will be here shortly, and suddenly the changes coming will seem closer. For those of us who take nanotechnology seriously, it's unnervingly close already. So we're working harder, thinking harder, pushing our tools to the limit.

This includes our computers, which are "maxing out." The CritSuite server is overloaded; our office desktop machines need replacing; our software is getting old. Our office manager's modem runs at 14.4K. This all must change.

Foresight has traditionally been low-key in its fundraising, but this luxury is ending. You'll be hearing from us more often, and more urgently. I know of no way to get more long-term results per donation dollar than we've done, consistently, since 1986. Your skills, time, and dollar contributions make Foresight possible. Thanks for being on the team, and we look forward to working with you as we continue this experiment in shaping the future.

To join as a Senior Associate, see our web site [] or call the sign-ups-only phone line, (650) 917-1121.

The problem of software: Open Source will help

In Eric's upcoming talk in San Jose (see above) I'm guessing that he will end up concluding that the freedom, security, and well-being of our society and our biosphere(s) in the future will depend strongly on the reliability and security of the software underlying our systems. Not a happy thought, currently, given the state of today's software. Operating systems, languages, applications -- most of them are unreliable, insecure, and hard to use. "Mean Time Between Failure" for software seems to be decreasing. At this rate, we'll have nanocomputer-based hardware that crashes every other nanosecond.

It doesn't have to be that way. Better software technologies and software development styles already exist. Capabilities, or "e-rights," can give us better security and reliability []. So can the "Bazaar-style" development method described in Eric Raymond's "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" paper [] which encouraged Netscape to "open source" its browser source code -- that is, to make the code openly available, not secret as most applications are.

As this issue goes to layout, I'm off to the first "Open Source Developer Day," sponsored by O'Reilly & Associates []. Foresight will continue to assist and encourage this community [] as we have in the past. Communicating about technology is our specialty--it was Foresight that first suggested using the term "open source."

You may ask, does a focus on software displace our discussion of the technical side of nanotechnology? The answer is no, because software and hardware advances are intertwined in every scenario for the development and use of nanotechnology. Successful, reality-based policies will require attention to both.

Christine Peterson is Executive Director of Foresight Institute.

Foresight Update 34 - Table of Contents


Sixth Foresight/IMM Conference

NSF Forum, Nobel Laureate, To Highlight Nanotechnology
Conference Nov. 13-15; Tutorial Set for Nov. 12

The National Science Foundation, which recently announced a major initiative in nanotechnology, is joining with Foresight Institute to sponsor a one-day forum on the topic "From Scientific Discovery to the Nanotechnology of Tomorrow." The NSF Forum will take place in conjunction with Foresight Institute's Sixth Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology, in Silicon Valley, CA.

Professor Steven Chu, 1997 winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics, will deliver the keynote address at the Foresight Conference. The Stanford University physics professor will speak on the topic, "The Manipulation of Atoms and Bio-molecules by Laser Light." Chu is the second consecutive Nobel laureate to keynote the Foresight conference, which last year was keynoted by Rice University's Richard Smalley, who won his Nobel Prize for discovering new and complex forms of carbon, known as "buckyballs."

The Foresight conference and NSF forum will be held at the Westin Hotel in Santa Clara, CA. The Conference will begin with a reception the evening of Thursday, November 12, and end Sunday, November 15, 1998.

The NSF Forum will be moderated by Prof. M.C. Roco, Chair of NSF's Interagency Nanotechnology Group. The Forum will address the following issues:

Invited lectures from industry, universities and national laboratories will analyze the path from exploratory research and new fundamental discoveries at the nanoscale to emerging technologies.

The conference is co-chaired by Al Globus and Deepak Srivastava of MRJ Technology Solutions, Inc. at NASA Ames Research Center, who lead NASA's extensive research in nanotechnology at NASA Ames.

Foresight Institute will also hold an intensive Tutorial on Critical Enabling Technologies for Nanotechnology on November 12. It is chaired by Dr. Jan Hoh of the Department of Physiology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.

More information about the conference, co-sponsors, and Feynman Prizes is available in the conference brochure and at the Foresight Institute web site at

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From Foresight Update 34, originally published 30 August 1998.