Foresight Update 43

page 5

A publication of the Foresight Institute

Foresight Update 43 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5


Media Watch 43

by Richard P. Terra

Richard P. TerraMass media and specialty academic/industry/trade publication coverage of nanotechnology has grown so extensively that it has become impossible to provide a comprehensive overview of it all here. Rather than provide unannotated listings, the Media Watch will focus on pointing out items of special interest. As always, for up-to-date pointers to numerous items related to nanotechnology and other issues of concern to the Foresight community, visit the Nanodot news site as often as possible.

Zyvex Corp. was the subject of an extensive "day in the life" article in the September issue of Upside ("16 Hours in the Life of Zyvex Corp.," by J. Borrell). If you want to read about what life is like at Zyvex, this is a good start.

Is Alexandra Witze, a science writer at the Dallas Morning News, hoping to win next year's Foresight Communications Prize? She at least ought to be nominated for single-handedly producing a series of eight substantial articles that appeared in that paper on 29 & 30 October 2000 (most of the articles are available at

An interesting item was a lengthy introduction to nanotechnology that appeared in Machine Design ("The Future Will Be Measured in Nanometers," by L. Teschler, 21 September 2000). Another example of nanotechnology being brought to the attention of engineers and designers, rather than pure science researchers.

A special issue of Chemical and Engineering News was devoted to nanotechnology (C&EN, 16 October 2000). The articles in the issue covered research, instrumentation, business and government involvement.

In a like manner, NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin, Associate Administrator Samuel L. Venneri, and Ahmed K. Noor, Director of the Center for Advanced Computational Technology at the Langley Research Center, co-authored a feature article in Mechanical Engineering ("The Great Out of the Small," November 2000) which highlighted NASA's view of the potential uses of nanotechnology in an extremely visible way. The fact that such highly placed figures are making such a presentation to the engineering community is significant. The article was also introduced with a special editorial by the journal's editor-in-chief.

Two articles that reached large audiences in non-technical publications are worth noting:

An article in the 16 September 2000 issue of the National Journal on the politics of science and technology policy formulation ("Political Science," by Neil Munro) includes a lengthy sidebar on the NNI that focuses on the concerns about runaway GNR technologies raised by Bill Joy. The piece quotes White House Science Advisor Neal Lane: "I agree with him that there are some ethical issues that need to be addressed [so] what I would say to Bill is, OK, let's keep the research going, and let's be sure we have in place whatever [ethics] process we need." The article also states that "science and industry groups oppose any restrictions on the technologies. Similarly, some Republicans oppose curbs for strategic reasons . . . Others argue that Joy's proposed nanotech-control treaties would only invite dangerous violations by other countries."

A lengthy article in The Washington Monthly ("Downsizing," by N. Thompson, October 2000) makes an interesting case for government involvement and even regulation of nanotechnology development: "Deep government involvement in nanotechnology is more than a practical obligation from a research and national defense persepective. It's close to becoming a moral imperative." After a brief overview of the potential benefits and dangers of nanotechnology, and discussing Bill Joy's call for relinquishment, the article asserts: "There's a gaping hole in Joy's proposed strategy however: It's impossible." Thompson goes on to suggest that the "logical solution is controlled development. The United States needs to push the science forward but we also need . . . to make sure that, as much as possible, the main research bases for this technology develop either on our own soil or with close allies, and we need to support much of the early research so it can be closely tied into government regulation. The most obvious danger would come if the United States falls behind the rest of the world and finds itself unable to control the technology." The article concludes by quoting Ralph Merkle of Zyvex: "If you've relinquished it, then you're hosed."

The London, UK-based The Ecologist Magazine ran an interesting piece ("Discomfort and Joy," by Z. Goldsmith, October 2000). The article opens with this outrageous question: "What do you get if you cross Bill Gates with Theodore Kaczynski . . . the Unabomber?", then moves on to outline Bill Joy's thesis as presented in his now-famous Wired article. After attempting, rather unsuccessfully, to ask Joy to be more specific about his suggested course of action, the article concludes: "Whatever Bill Joy decides to do, there is no doubt he will play a vital role in the coming debate. Though perhaps he has not fully thought out the true implications or the logical conclusions to his 'tune,' his intentions are clear, and unlike others in his field, he is willing to rethink some very basic assumptions."

The issue of relinquishment was also raised in a brief but interesting article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ("Future technology sure to be fantastic, but will it improve life?," by B. Spice, 20 October 2000), reporting on comments by Ray Kurzweil at a symposium held at Carnegie Mellon University on 19 October. (Taped comments by Bill Joy were also presented.) According to the article, Kurzweil acknowledged that any technology has inherent dangers. But Joy's "call for relinquishment of whole areas of technology ... is unrealistic." To prevent the potential apocalypse Joy fears, "you'd basically have to stop all technological development," he said, and that would likely require militaristic state control.

Kurzweil presents his views at greater length in an elegant and articulate essay in Interactive Week ("Promise and Peril," 23 October 2000). The article cogently summarizes Kurzweil's thesis on the "accelerating pace of innovation" and its likely consequences, as well as his response to Joy's arguments. "Although I am often cast as the technology optimist who counters Joy's pessimism," Kurzweil writes, "I do share his concerns regarding self-replicating technologies . . . Even so, I do find fault with Joy's prescription — halting the advance of technology and the pursuit of knowledge in broad fields such as nanotechnology." While acknowledging the validity of Joy's concerns about GNR technologies, Kurzweil continues: "Nevertheless, I reject Joy's call for relinquishing broad areas of technology . . . Most people, I believe, would agree that such broad-based relinquishment of research and development is not the answer." Kurzweil instead presents his thoughts, which have appeared elsewhere, on the idea of fine-scale relinquishment: "I do think that relinquishment at the right level needs to be part of our ethical response to the dangers of 21st century technologies. One salient example of this is the proposed ethical guideline by the Foresight Institute, founded by nanotechnology pioneer Eric Drexler . . . As responsible technologists, our ethics should include such 'fine-grained' relinquishment . . ." Kurzweil concludes on a cautiously optimistic note: "Technology will remain a double-edged sword, and the story of the 21st century has not yet been written. So, while we must acknowledge and deal with the dangers, we must also recognize that technology represents vast power to be used for all humankind's purposes. We have no choice but to work hard to apply these quickening technologies to advance our human values, despite what often appears to be a lack of consensus on what those values should be."

This point of view was echoed in an article in the International Herald Tribune ("Technology's Little-Heeded Prophet," by M. Martin, 23 October 2000). Again, after presenting the issues raised by Joy in his Wired piece, Martin concludes: "But if the best solution is to put some kind of governmental authority in charge of deciding what science is good and what is not, then we would do better to hope that the invisible hand of Adam Smith's marketplace provides a solution. Which it might: A possible solution to gray goo is blue goo: tiny self-replicating police robots that keep the other ones from misbehaving."

A rather superficial "me, too" article about Joy's crusade appeared in the ASEE house-organ Prism ("Bill Joy's Bad Dream," by J. Fischer, November 2000). Fischer's conclusion: "Joy may not have the answers to the problem, but thanks to him, no one any longer denies that the threat is very real. May we should start comparing Bill Joy to Paul Revere." Hopefully members of the ASEE will find or seek out a better presentation of the GNR debate elsewhere.

Peter Schwartz raises some of the same issues in a commentary for Red Herring Magazine ("Scenarios," 30 October 2000). "When K. Eric Drexler published . . . Engines of Creation, most scientists derided it," Schwartz writes. "But those skeptics were wrong . . . No idea has gone from wild, fringe science to the dead center of mainstream research faster than nanotechnology." He concludes: "Nanotechnology's development is inevitable: it's only a matter of when and where. Will it be in the United States now, or somewhere else later?"

The same issue of Red Herring also contains an extensive feature article on nanotechnology that focuses on medical applications ("The big science of nanomedicine," by S. Herrera). The magazine also ran a short piece, primarily about Zyvex, in its 5 October issue ("Lab Rat: Small Talk," by N. McKay).

Also on the topic of nanomedicine: An extensive critical but sympathetic review of Freitas' Nanomedicine, Vol. 1 by Gregory M. Fahy, Ph.D., a medical researcher specializing in cryonic tissue preservation, appeared in the October 2000 issue of Life Extension Magazine ("A Gift From The Future").

Automated Design / Robotic Evolution

Hod Lipson and Jordan Pollack at Brandeis University caused a considerable stir in late August when they published a paper in Nature describing a software system that used evolutionary methods to improve the design of very simple robotic systems. The system was not given a target of what a successful design might look like. Instead, it was given a list of possible parts, the laws of gravity and friction, the goal of moving on a horizontal surface and a pool of 200 randomly constructed, nonworking designs. Using evolutionary design methods, the system generated alternative hardware designs as well as mutant variations of the software for controlling the robot's movements. At each iteration, the resulting hardware/software combinations were tested in simulation, and the ones that moved well were retained, while unsuccessful designs were dropped from the pool. After 300 to 600 generations of evolution and fine-tuning, the best designs were actually translated into hardware for real-world testing.

The work was described in the 31 August 2000 issue of Nature, and covered in the New York Times ("Aping Biology, Computer Guides Automated Evolution of a Robot," by K. Chang) and the Los Angeles Times ("One Giant Leap for Machinekind?," by U. McFarling).

While this system is hardly autonomous, and requires considerable human intervention to implement the designs, even the hint of self-programming, self-replicating, evolving robotics systems raised the spectre of runaway systems, at least in press accounts. The Brandeis researchers and most commentators were quick to point out that this first primitive and quite "stupid" system is very limited, but does raise interesting questions and implications. A follow-up article by the New York Times ("Can Robots Rule the World? Not Yet," by Kenneth Chang, 12 September 2000) presents the views of many robotics researchers. The article also discusses the implications for nanotechnology, mentions the Foresight Guidelines, and quotes Ralph Merkle of Zyvex: "We're not interested in evolution," Dr. Merkle said. "Quite the reverse."

Science Special Issue

Nearly a decade ago, Science ran a special issue on nanotechnology ("Engineering a Small World," 29 November 1991). They've finally got around to doing a second (24 November 2000). In addition to research reports, the special issue includes a section containing review and news articles, laboratory profiles, covering, according a Science press release, "tiny electronics, labs-on-chips, and microrobots, and the challenges inherent in building and moving machinery at this miniature scale. News coverage examines nanotechnology's rise from science fiction to reality, and the recent breakthroughs in the field that have brought nanotechnology to the attention of policymakers, funding agencies and naysayers who believe the technology itself is dangerous." This last refers to the article, "Is Nanotechnology Dangerous?", which elicited the commentary by Ralph Merkle in this issue ("Impossible . . ."). A summary of the issue's contents can be found online.

Nobel laureate and nanotube researcher Richard Smalley is quoted in the "Dangerous?" article as describing the possibility of Drexlerian assemblers as "impossible." It's very ironic, then, to also read in the article on nanotechnology policy in The Washington Monthly (cited above), that Smalley is quoted as saying, "when a scientist says something is possible, they're probably underestimating how long it will take. But if they say it's impossible, they're probably wrong."

Foresight Update 43 - Table of Contents


Commentary: It's "Impossible" . . .

by Ralph C. Merkle, Principal Fellow, Zyvex Corporation

The recent special issue of Science on nanotechnology included the article "Is nanotechnology dangerous?"

The article opens with a quote from Bill Joy, who said "The only realistic alternative I see is relinquishment: to limit development of the technologies that are too dangerous, by limiting our pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge."

This created concern in the research community. Public fear has already had a major impact in limiting research in other areas (genetically engineered crops are but one example), and public fear of nanotechnology might derail the $500 million National Nanotechnology Initiative — and the much larger sums of money that are likely to flow in the years to come. What's a researcher to do? Announce that nanotechnology is 100% safe. Self replicating molecular machine systems? They don't sound safe, so they must be impossible. Drexler's assemblers? Impossible. Nanotechnology based weapons? Impossible.

Unfortunately, the reasons cited for believing that assemblers are impossible are themselves grossly in error. Let's review them.

"Biological systems, of course, reproduce. But they are both far larger than the nanoscale and fantastically complex, with separate systems to store and copy genetic information, produce energy, assemble proteins, transport nutrients, and so on."

The smallest bacteria appear to be less than 200 nanometers in diameter. This is about the diameter of proposed assemblers, so the claim that biological systems are far larger than assemblers is factually incorrect. More seriously, the size of assemblers is not an issue, their feasibility is. We do not argue that flight to the moon is impossible because living systems can't do it — the arguments against flight to the moon were based on the fact that there is no air in space to push against, hence rockets in space could not accelerate. This was explained in the New York Times in 1920. The New York Times retracted this opinion in 1969, after the first landing on the moon. If the same pattern is followed here, the feasibility of assemblers will be accepted after they have been built. This might be disadvantageous.

We come to the second claim, that biological systems are fantastically complex. Mycoplasma genitalia is the simplest known bacteria, and can replicate on a well defined chemical medium. It has a genomic complexity of 1,160,140 bits, or about 145 kilobytes. Windows 2000, with over 30 million lines of code, might be described as "fantastically complex." A 145 kilobyte program might have 10,000 lines of code. This could be written by a competent programmer in a few months. This would not be described as "complex," let alone "fantastically complex."

Finally, a short list of some cellular subsystems (information, energy, transport, protein synthesis) is given. As a similar list can be provided for assemblers (see, for example,, the point being made is obscure. Assemblers are impossible because they have subsystems?

Science then quotes Richard Smalley — a Nobel Prize-winning chemist at Rice University in Houston, Texas — as saying that Drexler's proposed assemblers are "impossible." "My advice is, don't worry about self-replicating nanobots" said Smalley. "It's not real now and will never be in the future."

To support this claim, Smalley said "Chemistry is the concerted motion of at least 10 atoms."

This definition excludes a huge swath of what most people would view as chemistry, including many proposed mechanosynthetic reactions. For example, removal of a selected hydrogen atom by the hydrogen abstraction tool is not chemistry on the grounds that it's only manipulating one atom (a hydrogen) — or perhaps a few atoms if you include the atoms to which that hydrogen is bonded or will bond. The hydrogen abstraction tool has been the subject of several theoretical studies because the ability to selectively remove a single hydrogen from a growing molecular work piece, leaving a dangling bond at a specific pre-selected site, is a very powerful and very basic reaction in the mechanosynthetic fabrication of molecular structures. Likewise, almost all the proposed molecular tools found in Chapter 8 of Nanosystems, which discusses mechanosynthesis, are excluded. All the proposed reactions in A proposed "metabolism" for a hydrocarbon assembler would be excluded. Diamond CVD (Chemical Vapor Deposition), used today to grow diamond, typically involves reactions between highly reactive gas-phase species and the growing diamond surface. As these reactions typically involve fewer than 10 atoms, they are also excluded, as is the mixing and burning of hydrogen and oxygen gas.

Smalley's definition also excludes experimental work which shows that individual atoms and molecules can be picked up and put down, and that molecules on a surface can be moved and bonded to each other using an SPM (Saw-Wai Hla et al., Physical Review Letters 85, 2777-2780, September 25 2000; H. J. Lee and W. Ho, Science 286, p. 1719, November 1999.)

Building on the dubious foundation that there must be at least 10 atoms in a chemical reaction, and that these 10 atoms must be guided by ten probes (or "fingers"), Smalley goes on to conclude "there's just not enough room" to fit 10 molecular-scale "fingers" to guide the chemical reactions. As Smalley himself proposed the use of 10 fingers, and then argued that ten fingers won't work, it is unclear what bearing this has on Drexler's proposals — which avoid Smalley's criticism of his own proposal by using one or two "fingers."

Arguing that we are all safe because self-replicating molecular machine systems are impossible, and then providing arguments to support this claim that fail to withstand even modest scrutiny, does little to reassure anyone. Bad science is bad science, and incorrect statements in support of what you believe are good public policies are, in the end, counterproductive.

Another risk in calling something "impossible" is that it discourages research — what student could study self-replicating molecular machine systems in the research groups of the researchers arguing in Science that such systems are impossible? How many committees will believe the falsehood that "it's impossible" and deny funding for the development of molecular manufacturing? Without research, ignorance and prejudice will hold sway. Many companies and countries have been ruined by ignorance. Are we going to join them? We might.

In Nanosystems, Drexler said "It is easy to describe unworkable systems, and criticism of a critic's own bad design have on occasion been presented as if they were criticisms of molecular nanotechnology as a whole." We now have a few more examples of the truth of this statement.

Foresight Update 43 - Table of Contents


Thank You Conference Sponsors

Our Thanks to All Who Helped Make the Eight Foresight Conference One of Our Most Successful Conferences Ever!

Our sincere thanks to the corporate sponsors who supported the Eighth Foresight Conference On Molecular Nanotechnology. They include:

  Primary Sponsor:   Technanogy  
Technanogy logo

  Principal Sponsor:   Sun Microsystems   Sun Microsystems logo  

  General Sponsors:   Foley & Lardner  
Foley & Lardner

  General Sponsors:   Zyvex Corporation   Zyvex logo

Zyvex founder and CEO Jim Von Ehr
Jim Von Ehr, II

  Supporting Sponsors:   Howard, Rice, Nemerovski,
Canady, Falk and Rabkin
  Howard Rice logo

Denis Rice, a founding partner of Howard Rice Nemerovski Canady Falk & Rabkin.

  Supporting Sponsors:   JEOL   JEOL logo

Thanks to our conference organizers: Conference Co-Chairs Don Brenner (left) and Jan Hoh (right), and Tutorial Chair Susan Sinnott (center).

Special Thanks to Marcia Seidler, Conference Planner (front & center), and Foresight staff members Harriet Wiess (front left), Yakira Heyman (left, standing), Elaine Tschorn (center), and Tanya Jones (right).

Foresight Update 43 - Table of Contents


Thanks: Credits and Kudos

Special thanks this time go to executive recruiter Don Wright for finding our new Executive Director Chuck Piercey. Don's work was funded in part by The Management Center, through a grant from the Packard Foundation.

Huge thanks go to Foresight's Chief Information Officer Carol Shaw, as we reluctantly release her into well-deserved retirement. They say no one is irreplaceable, but Carol comes as close as it is possible to do. Fortunately, as Carol is married to Foresight advisor Ralph Merkle, we'll still see her often.

Enthusiastic thanks go to our hardworking Foresight Conference chairpeople: Prof. Jan Hoh of Johns Hopkins, Prof. Don Brenner of North Carolina State, and tutorial chair Prof. Susan Sinnott of University of Florida.

Thanks to all our Feynman Prize participants and judges, and to the original donors of the Prize funds: Senior Associates Jim Von Ehr and Marc Arnold (Marc originated the Prize concept).

Thanks also to the originator of our newest Prize, Senior Associate Larry Millstein, whose enthusiasm and financial support allowed us to offer this award for nanotech journalism

As always, thanks go to our wonderful Foresight Conference staff: conference planner Marcia Seidler and her crack team of Yakira Heyman, Tanya Jones, Elaine Tschorn, and Harriet Weiss. On conference evaluation forms, attendees gave their highest praise to the conference staff!

Continuing and ongoing thanks go to Senior Associate Dave Krieger, who is doing the systems administration for on a pro bono basis. Similar kudos to Senior Associate Ka-Ping Yee, who does the same for, and to Senior Associate Ken Kittlitz for our Idea Futures site.

Co-location services for Nanodot are donated by Yipes, thanks to Senior Associates Frank Robles and Peter Kaminski; site space for Idea Future is donated by Javien, Inc, thanks to the many Senior Associates at that company.

Yet more thanks go to, which pledged funding for Foresight's proposed conference on Intellectual Property Reform. (Other funders couldn't move as fast as, so we've postponed this meeting until June 2001 or February 2002.)

Thanks to the folks at law firm Foley & Lardner for inviting me as a keynote speaker at an American Health Lawyers Association conference. It's important to seed this community with understanding of the expected effect of nanotechnology on health.

Those above are a small sample of those meriting thanks from Foresight. Someday I hope we can all gather and toast each other on a job well done.

— Christine Peterson, President


Upcoming Events

Foresight Update 43 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5

From Foresight Update 43, originally published 30 December 2000.