Foresight Update 42

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

Foresight Update 42 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5


Future Nanotechnologists Visit Foresight, Envision Medical Uses

Chris Peterson and visiting studentsA quartet of science-minded third graders from Dorris Eaton School, a private school in Walnut Creek (a community in the south Bay Area near Palo Alto) paid a visit to the Foresight office during the Spring.

Alejandra Dean, Mary Howe, Sarah Lindsay and Nicole Rumore were participants in the NSTA/ExploraVison Science Awards Program. This is a national science competition open to K-12th graders sponsored by the National Science Teachers Association and Toshiba. Teams of no more than 4 students must come up with an idea or invention that technology could create within the next 20 years. Three of the girls were veterans of this competition from previous years

From listening to a NPR radio spot on nanotechnology and reading a subsequent newspaper article, the girls chose nanotechnology as the topic of their entry for this year. They "brainstormed" for ideas by looking at "problems" that exist today to see if they could come up with solutions.

The problem they chose to tackle was the #1 killer in the U.S. today — heart disease. They learned all about atherosclerosis, ischemia, plaque, etc., conducting research at a local library and on the Internet. After learning about the basics of heart disease, they visited Kaiser Oaklands (an area hospital) pathology department, got to put on gloves and see normal and diseased heart specimens. They also used microscopes to view and learn about red and white blood cells.

For the competition, the girls' "invention" was a "NanoFatbuster," using nanotechnology to fight heart disease. The girls presented their findings in a ten page written report which outlines an imagined history of the technology, real present-day technology, and the breakthroughs between the two necessary to make their vision a reality, and a discussion of the "consequences" of their invention. In addition, the girls developed a mock web site which explains their idea.

"I was contacted by phone by one of the girl's mothers asking if they could visit Foresight," recalls Yakira Heyman, Foresight's Director of Development. "They of course wanted to meet the famous Eric Drexler. I explained that there wasn't much to actually see at the Foresight offices (no cool labs or anything) and that I couldn't guarantee Eric's availability, but that perhaps our President, Chris Peterson could spend some time with them."

Yakira went on: "They came to the office in April and using the whiteboards in the conference room, Chris gave them a very interesting presentation on nanotechnology. We also gave them copies of "Nanotechnology Playhouse," which they were thrilled to receive. One thing I think they enjoyed was seeing women in the field."

Out of 12,000 contestants, the quartet from Dorris Eaton School received an Honorable Mention Award. Only 2,000 of those were awarded.

"I think this illustrates a special side of Foresight's commitment to educating the public," Yakira said. "Our busy President took the time to give these four girls something they will never forget. They later sent us a framed collage of photos they took while here, handmade cards from the girls, and a $500 donation."

Foresight Update 42 - Table of Contents


Media Watch.42

by Richard P. Terra

Richard P. TerraMedia coverage of nanotechnology and related items continues to grow explosively, and it's no longer possible to present more than an overview of the most interesting and/or important items in the Media Watch column here in the Update. However, the advent of Nanodot does provide a way for us to provide you with information on late-breaking items, and others that for one reason or another don't make it into an issue of the Update. In addition, postings to Nanodot alert us to items that bear watching, and we cull the best of these for inclusion here.

A feature article in Nature ("Nanotech thinks big," by Colin Macilwain, 15 June 2000) provides a useful background overview of the rationale for the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative, the variety of nanoscale science and technology research likely to be funded under NNI, and the views of a number of researchers on the relevance of the program to longer-term nanotechnology development.

The Tokyo-based Nikkei Weekly reports ("Keidanran gets behind nanotechnology," 14 August 2000) the Japan Federation of Economic Organizations (Keidanran), Japan's most influential business organization, has set up a task force to promote the development of nanotechnology. The group, comprising representatives of some 40 firms, including Hitachi, Matsushita, Mitsubishi and others, plans to recommend the Japanese government coordinate joint research by public, private and academic partners.

Articles in general mass-media venues continue to introduce the concept of nanotechnology, and discuss its implications, to an ever-widening audience. (For some unknown reason, there was an unusually large number of items from Canada this time . . . ).

Nanotechnology related work at U.S. national laboratories, for example, led to coverage of Sandia Laboratories in the 12 June 2000 Des Moines Business Record, and in the Pleasanton, Ca. Tri-Valley Herald on 13 June (near the Livermore Laboratory).

A special issue of Time Magazine on "The Future of Technology" contained a two page article on nanotechnology ("Will tiny robots build diamonds one atom at a time?" by M. Lemonick, 19 June 2000). The article gives a brief overview of the core concepts of molecular nanotechnology and some of its potential applications before concluding: "One way or another, nanotechnology is coming."

Interest in nanotechnology among the venture capital community continues to advance, although more slowly than general public awareness. An item in USA Today ("Dot-com carnage opens the door to a brighter future," 22 June 2000) focuses on the flight of investors out of Internet-related investments, but mentions nanotechnology as one area toward which some venture capitalists such as Steve Jurveston of Draper Fisher Jurveston, are turning their attention: "They're getting interested in the first rumblings of nanotechnology . . . Nanotech companies probably won't pay off for five or 10 years." The item was reprinted in the 26 June edition of the San Jose Mercury News.

Jurveston was also profiled in the July/August issue of Worth Magazine ("Changing the World One Start-up At a Time," by Joe Hagan). The article makes brief mention of his affiliation as a Senior Associate with Foresight, but inaccurately describes him as the "sole VC member."

The July 2000 issue of PC Magazine ("The Nano Future," by S.Rupley) asks readers, "What if you could take tiny specks of matter and make them into intelligent machines? . . . Now, efforts to make the idea real are accelerating, even as warnings about tiny devices are escalating." The short piece manages to mention computing applications, Bill Joy, and the NNI. The web version is dated 8 May.

Nanotechnology was the focus of a Business & Technology feature in U.S. News & World Report ("The next big thing is small," by P. Longman, 3 July 2000).

A major general-interest article on nanotechnology appeared in the Toronto, Ontario Star ("Tiny tech," by D. Thomson, 20 July 2000) represents something of a throwback to negative media portrayals of Eric Drexler and Foresight as utopian extremists, and claims now that Drexler has been "marginalized . . . nanotechnology has begun to gain a newfound respectability." The article quotes skeptics such as Martin Moskovitz, a professor of chemistry at the U of Toronto, who labels the concept of an assembler "bunk." In general, the focus is on current and short-term possibilities, while a longer-term vision of advanced nanotechnology is dismissed as "science fiction."

On the other Canadian coast, the Vancouver, BC Sun also ran an extensive overview ("The Incredible Shrinking Future," by T. Barrett, 26 July 2000). While not as negative, this piece is also less well presented. In addition to basic information, the article also presents the views of Bill Joy and Ray Kurzweil, as well as those of UBC physicist Jeff Young.

A profile of Zyvex and CEO Jim Von Ehr appeared in the Dallas Business Journal ("Zyvex pioneers surging field of nano-tech," by Jeff Bounds, 28 July 2000). The article touches on work on medical and computing applications, as well as Zyvex's efforts toward developing an assembler.

A similar profile of the new doctoral-level academic program associated with the Center for Nanotechnology at the University of Washington in Seattle (see related story in this issue) appeared in the Bellevue, Washington Eastside Journal ("Nanotech: Small is getting bigger," by Chris Winters, 7 August 2000), and was reprinted in a sister publication, the South County Journal in Kent, Wa. The article includes comments from CNT director Viola Vogel, Steve Vetter of MMEI, and Ralph Merkle of Zyvex.

Another general piece on nanotechnology, with a slight nod toward the development of medical nanorobots, ran in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ("Robots in your bloodstream," by Elan Ruskin, 21 August 2000). The article touches on the work of Rod Ruoff, a nanotube researcher at Washington University (in St. Louis), and MEMS developer Joe Lyding at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign), and includes a brief comment by Robert Freitas Jr. on nanomedical applications.

A special issue of Macleans, a national weekly newsmagazine in Canada roughly equivalent to Time or Newsweek in the U.S., titled "The Future: Will It Work?", included an article on nanotechnology ("Nanotech: How to Play with Atoms," by Chris Wood, 21 August 2000).

An example of nanotech-related news reaching a new audience is the article that appeared in the 23 July 2000 issue of the Chicago La Raza, a Spanish-language newspaper ("No es cienzia ficción, es . . . Nanotechnologia!" by G. Zavatti). The article profiles latino scientists and students participating in nanotechnology-related research.

Awareness of and interest in nanotechnology is also growing among a wide variety of materials, industrial and manufacturing sectors. A few recent examples from the trade press:

An editorial in the July 2000 issue of Plant Services (as in physical plant) ("Mork, is that you?" by Pat Speer, Editor) drags in the sophomoric reference to Mork & Mindy (nano! nano!), before describing the National Nanotechnology Initiative, and discussing its potential impact on manufacturing: "[T]hese developments are likely to change the way most everything—from vaccines to computers to automobile tires to objects not yet imagined—is designed and manufactured." Numerous federal agencies, Speer writes, "are lined up and funded to support the initiative, which will strengthen scientific disciplines and create critical interdisciplinary opportunities."

A somewhat thick-headed piece in Military & Aerospace Electronics ("Defying the gods of physics," by J. Rhea, July 2000) questions whether the transition from silicon-based electronics to molecular systems will be evolutionary or revolutionary; i.e. a smooth or a bumpy one for electronics firms and contractors. The report gives a brief overview of the NNI from this limited perspective, and concludes with this absurdity: "Lacking the always desirable 'killer application,' nanotechnology may yet languish and wither . . ." Not likely.

The "Washington Window" column in the July 2000 issue of Mechanical Engineering ("Catching Up to Nanotechnology," by F. Dietz) is almost boosterish in its presentation of one of the core concepts of molecular manufacturing: "Nanotechnology is in the sphere of engineering, not that of pure science . . . Drexler pointed out that engineers already know the fundamental scientific principles and are thus prepared to use those principles to actually build things." The piece goes on to give a brief but cogent overview of the NNI, and concludes: "Clearly, mechanical engineers can be excited about the possibilities nanotechnology holds for the future."

An article in Computerworld, an information-technology trade magazine, presents an interesting overview of the potential use of carbon nanotubes in electronics applications ("Welcome to the Nanoworld," by J.K. Dineen, 10 July 2000).

Medical applications of nanotechnology continue to be an area of strong interest:

A relatively lengthy piece on nanotechnology, highlighting medical applications, appeared in The New York Times Magazine ("The Doctor That Floats in Your Bloodstream," by K. Breslau, 11 June 2000). Breslau does not shirk from the vast implications of advanced medical technology: "Our relation to aging, to mortality, to the messages sent us by our own bodies may be forever altered by infinitesimally small computers that diagnose our diseases, repair our ravaged cells and ultimately transform — for better or for worse — what it means to be human."

A feature article in Popular Science ("Incredible Shrinking Doctors," by Dan Cray, July 2000) gives a brief sketch of the concept of medical nanorobots, mentions Drexler's Nanosystems, and discusses the work of Ari Requicha at the USC Molecular Robotics Lab, Al Globus at NASA Ames, Ralph Merkle of Zyvex, Bob Austin at Princeton, Carlo Montemagno at Cornell, and Ned Seeman of NYU.

An article on nanotechnology and its potential medical applications by Robert A. Freitas Jr., author of Nanomedicine, appeared in The Sciences ("Say 'Ah!'," July/August 2000). "The hope and the dream," Freitas writes, "is that, sometime in the not-to-distant future, those devices will be able to eliminate virtually all the common diseases of the twentieth century, and virtually all bodily pain and suffering as well."

Molecular electronics was in the news once again:

A feature article, "Computing with Molecules," in the June 2000 issue of Scientific American, by molecular electronics pioneers Mark A. Reed and James M. Tour, provides an excellent illustrated introduction to molecular electronics. The authors describe "recent advances were in molecular-scale electronics, a field emerging around the premise that it is possible to build individual molecules that can perform functions identical or analogous to those of the transistors, diodes, conductors and other key components of today's microcircuits."

Reed and Tour were themselves profiled in a lengthy article in the July 2000 issue of Wired Magazine ("Molecular Electronics Will Change Everything," by Rick Overton). The Wired piece provides an interesting look at the personalities involved in the increasingly competitive field of molecular electronics.

Finally, an article in the Houston Chronicle ("Nanotechnology development may drastically alter computing," by T. Fowler, 15 August 2000) provides an inside look at Molecular Electronics Corp., the company Reed & Tour have founded to commercialize molectronics (see in-depth summary in this issue). The article was reprinted in the 24 August 2000 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Reactions generated by Bill Joy's article in Wired in April, and his subsequent presentations in print, radio, television and in speeches, have continued unabated (see Update 41). The debate over the potential benefits and dangers of genetic engineering, nanotechnology and robotics (GNR) shows no signs of fading out. In fact, the arena of discussion, or at least awareness of the main points at issue, seems to be widening.

Joy reiterated the issues that concern him in an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times ("21st Century Technologies Pose New and Wondrous Dangers," 24 July 2000). Joy asserts "the scale of activities needed to practice the GNR technologies is rapidly declining and . . . do not need rare raw materials." Further, he writes, "the knowledge needed to design these technologies is freely available on the Internet. The advancing power of computing will allow this design to be done on a personal computer, and manufacture of these designs" is becoming inexpensive and easy. Joy then argues that there is a small but significant fraction of the technically-capable population who suffer from "delusional disorders," and cautions "The malevolent actions of such individuals and small groups using the GNR technologies pose a large and even mortal danger to our civilization", that "we are drifting toward a . . . potential catastrophe, on course to put our collective fate in the hands of the extreme individuals who undeniably exist in the world." Joy briefly suggests means for dealing with this danger before concluding, "We must act collectively to reduce this grave threat while getting the most of the benefits of the new technologies. We can do this only if we fully face the new dangers and act decisively—soon."

An essay by Ray Kurzweil in response to Joy's concerns appeared on the web site ("Promise and peril of technology: between innovation and annihilation," 6 May 2000). Kurzweil notes: "People often go through three stages in examining the impact of future technology: awe and wonderment at its potential to overcome age-old problems, then a sense of dread at a new set of grave dangers that accompany these new technologies, followed, finally and hopefully, by the realization that the only viable and responsible path is to set a careful course that can realize the promise while managing the peril." Kurzweil also presents his conception of "fine-grained" relinquishment.

An extensive selection of the letters in response to Joy's original article appeared in the letters column ("Rants & Raves") of the July 2000 issue of Wired.

An article on Joy and his views ("Designing Our Demise," by John Colson, 17 June 2000) appeared in the Aspen Times (Joy lives in Aspen, Co.). "Although he is not entirely convinced his concerns will prove correct, he is worried enough that he has devoted considerable energy and talent to a campaign of research and public discourse on the subject." Joy says: "My view is that what people are preparing to do . . . is redesign the world and redesign humans, which has some dangers."

S. Brown, writing in Electronic Business ("Don't hide out in the lab," June 2000), asks that researchers do more to explain the potential impacts of their work: "The engineers and scientists, especially those able to write and speak as lucidly as Bill Joy, owe us an intellectual and emotional foundation for what they deliver. That way, no one need panic or protest mindlessly against real progress."

R. Malone, writing in Managing Automation ("Does the Future Need Humans?", June 2000) opines that it is hubris to believe intelligent replicating robotic systems can successfully be developed, and asks, "Joy seems to share the technology developers' hubris in being convinced we can do what they say we can . . . Have Moravec and Kurzweil ever met up with Murphy's Law?"

An editorial in the Chicago Tribune (Technology, past and future," 17 June 2000) concludes: "The future is unknowable, always has been, always will be. The potential for catastrophe lurks everywhere and that won't change. But so, we do well to remember, does the potential for progress."

An editorial column in the Burlington, Iowa Hawk Eye ("Nanotech: The Midas Touch," by Bob Saar, 9 July 2000) presents the mistaken assumption that nanobots will be "synthetic biological machines" and questions how we will prevent from evolving runaway replicators. Despite this erroneous basis, Saar's column presents an interesting short essay on both the potential benefits and dangers of nanotechnology.

An extensive editorial essay in Midrange Computing ("The Gray Goo Problem," by Victor Rozek, August 2000) gives a cogent summary of the issues raised by Joy, but suggests no answers. "With regard to emerging technologies," Rozek writes, "the issue is not that unintended consequences will emerge — the record strongly suggests they will — but that the stakes are getting progressively larger." The piece does raise the issues for thoughtful consideration by the reader, and concludes, "From the time humans learned to walk upright, we have been engaged in a race between consciousness and disaster. Joy's contribution to consciousness, both as a technology provider and as a harbinger, should not be overlooked."

Foresight Senior Associate Ka-Ping Yee was profiled in a brief article from the Kitchener, Ontario (Canada) Record ("Get set for startling change, grad says," by Kevin Crowley, 19 June 2000). Yee spoke at Shad Summit 2000, a leadership conference sponsored by the University of Waterloo, where he took his degree in computer engineering in 1998. His talk discussed four "world changing technologies" that could yield startling developments over the next 25 to 30 years: genetic engineering, nanotechnology, life extension and AI. Offering a different approach to confronting a future of change, Yee urged his audience to face this future with optimism and responsibility. "Humanity is about to face the most critical chapter in its history," he said. "I ask you to face the future with courage, not fear, because there's one thing I can guarantee you: You will live in interesting times."

Finally, an oddity: a very short nanotechnology-based science fiction story by Tom Schneider, a molecular information theorist with the NIH, appeared in the 27 July 2000 issue of Nature ("The bottle: Force the weird stuff down."). It's a moody, downbeat vignette, all the more startling for appearing in a mainstream science journal.

Foresight Update 42 - Table of Contents


Web Watch.42

by Jim Lewis

Jim Lewis
Another new academic nanotechnology research center: "This year, the University of Notre Dame established a Center of Excellence in Nano Science and Technology in recognition of fifteen years of quality faculty research and educational development in the area. The center actively explores multidisciplinary fundamental concepts in nanoscience and engineering with emphasis on applications to unique functional capabilities." The integrated research approach currently comprises six efforts in "molecular-based nanostructures, semiconductor-based nanostructures, device concepts and modeling, nanofabrication characterization, image and information processing, and functional systems design," with the principal emphasis on computing with Quantum-dot Cellular Automata (QCA).
The Website for the Center for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology at New York University has a motto at the top of their page that expresses a sentiment we heartily endorse: "Better Living through Nanotechnology," attributed to Stephen R. Wilson, Director. Currently there is not much information about the Center itself, but there are links to several impressive research efforts. In addition to the work of Nadrian Seeman on DNA nanotechnology, which will be very familiar to long-time readers of Update, there is the work of David I. Schuster and Stephen R. Wilson on fullerenes and carbon nanotubes, including chemical functionalization and preparing antibodies to fullerenes and carbon nanotubes. James W. Canary uses supramolecular coordination chemistry to produce chiral molecular sensors and switches.
"The Molecular Graphics Laboratory of The Scripps Research Institute is under the direction of Dr. Arthur J. Olson. This laboratory is interested in developing novel techniques for the computation, analysis, and modeling of protein folding, protein-ligand, and protein-protein interactions." At this site you can learn about:
Available at the Web site of Erik Winfree, of the departments of Computer Science and Computation and Neural Systems at Caltech, is a broad range of resources in molecular computation, including downloadable versions of many papers on DNA computation, self-assembly of DNA tilings, and related topics; downloadable software for DNA design (alpha release with bug warning); links to a variety of software and other resources.
Robert Bradbury's Web site is an excellent place to find imaginative but well-considered speculation on some of the further implications of molecular manufacturing. A brief paper on "Nanoassembly of an Aircraft Carrier" considers aspects of the molecular manufacture of large objects. "Planet Disassembly" considers how to dismantle planets to provide resources for truly large space construction projects. Perhaps the ultimate large space construction project would be "Matrioshka Brains (MB)," megascale superintelligent thought machines which would consume the entire energy output of a star and would require all of the useful construction materials in a solar system. "The computational capacity difference between a MB and a human is on the order of 1016 (ten million billion) times greater than the difference between a human and a nematode (~109)!" This paper envisions "what civilizations could be like at the limits imposed by physics." There are also copious links to information on space resources, genome sequencing, and other topics.

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From Foresight Update 42, originally published 30 September 2000.