Foresight Update 48

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

Foresight Update 48 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5


Administration requests $679 million for NNI in FY2003 budget proposal

As part of the US$2.13 trillion budget proposed for the U.S. federal government for fiscal year 2003, the Bush Administration has requested a total of $679 million for the multi-agency National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), a 17% increase over FY2002.

The request includes:

According to the Analytical Perspectives: Budget of the United States Government, a document which discusses the Administration's budget proposals in detail:

The budget provides $679 million for the multi-agency National Nanotechnology Initiative, a 17 percent increase over 2002. The initiative focuses on long-term research on the manipulation of matter down to the atomic and molecular levels, giving us unprecedented building blocks for new classes of devices as small as molecules and machines as small as human cells. This research could lead to continued improvement in electronics for information technology; higher-performance, lower-maintenance materials for defense, transportation, space, and environmental applications; and accelerated biotechnical applications in medicine, healthcare, and agriculture. In 2003, the initiative will focus on fundamental nanoscale research through investments in investigator-led activities, centers and networks of excellence, as well as the supporting infrastructure. Priority areas include: research to enable efficient nanoscale manufacturing; innovative nanotechnology solutions for detection of and protection from biological-chemical-radiological-explosive agents; the education and training of a new generation or workers for future industries; and partnerships and other policies to enhance industrial participation in the nanotechnology revolution. The convergence of nanotechnology with information technology, modern biology and social sciences will reinvigorate discoveries and innovation in many areas of the economy.

The document is available online as an Adobe Acrobat PDF file (about 3.2 Mb). Additional budget documents are available at the White House/Office of Management and Budget (OMB) website (

It is worth noting that the document also mentions the following areas that will be addressed by the U.S. Information Technology Initiative: "trust" (security, reliability, and privacy); high-assurance software and systems; and micro- and embedded sensor technologies.

Additional coverage of nanotech-related funding in the administration's FY2003 budget request:

Some additional detail on the funding request for the nanotechnology programs at NSF can be found in the NSF Summary of the FY2003 Budget Request, available online at the NSF website ( According to that document, "NSF is emphasizing long-term, fundamental research aimed at discovering novel phenomena, processes, and tools; addressing NNI Grand Challenges; supporting new interdisciplinary centers and networks of excellence including shared user facilities; supporting research infrastructure; and addressing research and educational activities on the societal implications of advances in nanoscience and nanotechnology."

The summary states that the 11.3% increase in funding for NSF nanotech programs will be used to "develop and strengthen critical fields and to establish the science and engineering infrastructure and workforce needed to exploit the opportunities presented by these new capabilities. Besides single investigator research, support will be focused on interdisciplinary research and education teams, national science and engineering centers, exploratory research and education projects, and education and training."

The summary also says that long-term goals "include building a foundation of fundamental research for understanding and applying novel principles and phenomena for nanoscale manufacturing and other NNI Grand Challenges; ensuring that U.S. institutions will have access to a full range of nano-facilities; enabling access to nanotechnology education for students in U.S. colleges and universities; and catalyzing the creation of new commercial markets that depend on three-dimensional nanostructures. These goals will make possible development of revolutionary technologies that contribute to improvements in health, advance agriculture, conserve materials and energy, and sustain the environment."

A projection of further substantial funding increases is also presented. Long-term funding for the NSF Nanoscale Science and Engineering priority area is given as follows (in millions of dollars):

FY 2001
FY 2002
Current Plan
FY 2003
FY 2004 FY 2005
149.68 198.71 221.25 251.25 266.25

The NSF document also breaks out in detail NSF's planned investment for Nanoscale Science and Engineering in FY2003, which totals $221.25 million. The NSF's five programmatic focus areas are:

Fundamental Research and Education — The FY 2003 request includes an estimated $141.0 million for fundamental research and education, with special emphasis on:

Grand Challenges — Approximately $10.7 million will fund interdisciplinary activities to focus on major long-term challenges: nanostructured materials 'by design,' nanoscale electronics, optoelectronics and magnetics, nanoscale-based manufacturing, catalysts, chemical manufacturing, environment and healthcare.

Centers and Networks of Excellence — Approximately $37.9 million will support six research and education centers established in FY 2001, and a multidisciplinary, multi-sectoral network for modeling and simulation at the nanoscale. Support includes the nanofabrication user facilities that come online in FY 2002.

Research Infrastructure — Approximately $21.7 million will support instrumentation and facilities for improved measurements, processing and manipulation at nanoscale, and equipment and software for modeling and simulation. University/industry/national laboratory and international collaborations will be encouraged, particularly for expensive instrumentation and facilities.

Societal and Educational Implications of Science and Technology Advances — Approximately $9.9 million will support student assistantships, fellowships and traineeships, curriculum development on nanoscience and engineering and development of new teaching tools. The implications of nanotechnology on society will be analyzed from social, behavioral, legal, ethical, and economic perspectives. Factors that stimulate scientific discovery at the nanoscale, ensure the responsible development of nanotechnology, and utilize converging technologies to improve human performance will be investigated. The development and use of nanoscale technologies is likely to change the design, production and use of many goods and services.

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Potential dangers, benefits of nanotech gain attention

Public discussion of the potential social, economic and political impacts of nanotechnology, including those that might result from the misuse or deliberate abuse of advanced nanotechnology, is occurring with increasing frequency in academic and government forums, as well as in the mass media. As you might imagine, leading members of the Foresight community have been making their voices heard and their views known in these discussions.

Cautionary statements

Not surprisingly, there has been a much-heightened level of interest in and concern about the potential dangers and misuse of nanotechnology following the terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001. Some of the initial reaction to those events is captured in an extensive article on the Small Times website ("Nanotech's dark side debated in the aftershock of Sept. 11", by John Carroll, 2 November 2001. The article quotes Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee and a member of the Foresight board of directors: "Nanotechnology in the wrong hands is a frightening prospect," said Reynolds. "There's no question that if Osama bin Laden had access to nanoweapons that he'd use them."

The article raises some interesting issues about the open pursuit of nanotechnology, and the possibility that, sooner or later, it will begin to be regulated, and possibly restricted.

For years now, nanotechnology has surged forward based on open source research methods. In this emerging field, free and open discussion is a prized feature. Regular conferences in Europe and around the United States encourage the sharing of ideas to foster new thinking and researchers frequently find themselves pollinating fresh ideas with colleagues.

But every new step toward commercialization, as nanotech makes the transition from the drawing board to reality, brings the fledgling industry closer to the day when many believe an inevitable round of government regulations will be needed to prevent abuses. And as nanotechnology begins to deliver new and improved weapons, secrecy will eventually cloak important research work.

The article also grapples with the issue of whether voluntary guidelines alone will be able to positively shape the direction of nanotech research and development. Foresight Institute has been considering these issues for years, which led to the formulation of the Foresight Guidelines for the safe development of molecular nanotechnology (see But, as Foresight President Chris Peterson notes, "Any powerful technology can be abused."

Initially, says Peterson, most of the researchers in nanotechnology were more concerned about devising safeguards against the possible risks of an accident. But now many are taking a fresh look at the possibilities of a deliberate abuse of the technology. "We're beginning to think about it," says Peterson. "It is a major issue."

Glenn Reynolds notes that "[a]s nanotechnology matures, it's only a matter of time before the issue of restricted research and secrecy will have to be confronted." But it would be premature to start a debate now on what should be classified and what shouldn't, says Ralph Merkle, a leading nanotechnology researcher at Zyvex Corp., and Foresight's Vice President for Technology Assessment. Until the technology comes off the drawing board and into reality, an open forum for sharing ideas has to be fostered so that people understand what the technology can do and what policies are needed for guiding it.

The article concludes: One thing is certain, says Reynolds: There is no going back. "The genie's not just out of the bottle. The bottle's broken."

Finding a rational approach

Glenn Reynolds also commented on the growing attention from both policy makers and the media to the potential opportunities and dangers of nanotechnology in a column on the TechCentral Station website ("Don't Be Afraid. Don't Be Very Afraid: Nanotechnology Worries Are Overblown", 6 December 2001). His conclusion:

"Overall, the best defense against the abuse of nanotechnology by terrorists, rogue governments, or anyone else is a combination: reasonable regulations to foster responsibility and safety, governments willing to police abuses by terrorists or other governments, and a world order in which such acts are discouraged in general. We're quite a distance from these factors, but fortunately we have at least a couple of decades to get there. It's time to start working."

Reynolds' comments about facing the potential dangers of nanotechnology without undue fear and loathing were also reported in a piece on the Wired website ("Don't Fear Science You Can't See"). Reynolds also had a similar discussion in Ad Astra, the magazine of the National Space Society ("Space, Nanotechnology and Techno-Worries", Jan/Feb 2001; available as an Adobe Acrobat PDF file).

"Rather than too much technology," he writes, "perhaps the problem is that we have too little. In the early days of nanotechnology, dangerous technologies may enjoy an advantage. Once the technology matures, it is likely that dangerous uses can be contained. The real danger of the sort of limits [Bill] Joy proposes is that they may retard the development of constructive technologies, thus actually lengthening the window of vulnerability." Reynolds concludes that Bill Joy may have done a service by drawing greater attention to both the dangers and the opportunities of nanotechnology, but: "If the debate is to accomplish anything, however, it will have to proceed on a more informed level."

The issue of whether to, and if so, how much, to control nanotech R&D efforts was debated elsewhere in the media; see "Debating nanotech in the news".

    "One of my profound hopes is that the new spirit of seriousness about life and death issues that we see in the wake of Sept. 11 ... will encourage people to pay a little less attention to politics and a little more attention to reality. This is a technology which can reasonably be described as extreme in all directions: extreme upsides, extreme downsides."    
    — K. Eric Drexler    

On 18 December, the American Association for the Advancement of Science held a day-long symposium on national security and scientific freedom, "The War On Terrorism: What Does It Mean for Science?" in Washington, D.C. During the symposium, K. Eric Drexler, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing and Foresight Board Chair, spoke as part of a panel discussion.

An article on the Small Times website ("Drexler warns terror symposium: Nanotech has 'extreme downsides' ", by Doug Brown, 19 December 2001) provided extensive coverage of Dr. Drexler's comments: "One of my profound hopes is that the new spirit of seriousness about life and death issues that we see in the wake of Sept. 11 ... will encourage people to pay a little less attention to politics and a little more attention to reality," said Drexler. "This is a technology which can reasonably be described as extreme in all directions: extreme upsides, extreme downsides."

Drexler also noted that many scientists who were eager to attach the term "nanotechnology" to their research when it was viewed as "sexy," became "a little upset to find that they had a label on their work that was associated with outrageous, science-fictiony sounding claims about the future and scary scenarios and other things", with the result that many members of the nanotechnology research community "like to distance themselves from the consequences of their own work."

For some background, read the Foresight Position Statement on Avoiding High-Tech Terrorism (at, and an open letter from Dr. Drexler on "Nanotechnology: Six Lessons from Sept. 11" (at

Brainstorming to prevent the threat of nanotechnology-based terrorism

Following Drexler's comments at the AAAS symposium, Glenn Reynolds, in his weekly column on technology and public policy for Tech Central Station, called 2001 "the year that people started to get serious about the promises and dangers of nanotechnology" ("Preventing Nanoterror Now", 27 December 2001). Reynolds lauded recent efforts to envision — and therefore prevent — possible dangers from and misuse of molecular nanotechnology, such as the AAAS symposium, and points to efforts such as the Foresight Guidelines for the safe development of nanotechnology.

Reynolds went on to suggest that policy makers need to do much more to develop a broad vision of potential nanotech threats. One possibility: "get together technical experts, leading science fiction writers, experts on terrorism, and some people who have thought about the social impacts of nanotechnology, and have them brainstorm on the kinds of threats that might emerge. From this, we could then move to a consideration of how to prevent those threats from becoming realities. . . . To broaden the idea base, we might also solicit suggestions from the general public", perhaps from web-based forums such as Nanodot. "I imagine that such an effort would yield thousands of ideas, from which experts could evaluate the best", says Reynolds. He concludes:

"Where this powerful technology is concerned, a nanogram of prevention is worth a kilogram of cure. Let's start thinking about nanoterrorism now, while we have the luxury of time. It's a luxury that won't last forever."

Nanotechnology and the environment

Another area where the potential benefits and dangers of nanotechnology received increased attention was the environment.

On 10 December 2001, for example, a workshop on "Nanotechnology and Environment: An Examination of the Potential Benefits and Perils of an Emerging Technology" was held at the Rice University Energy and Environmental Systems Institute (EESI), which co-sponsored the workshop with the Office for Science and Technology of the French Embassy USA.

Rice hosted the workshop in affiliation with its new Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN; at, one of six major Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centers recently established by the National Science Foundation (see Foresight Update #46) and the first to focus on applications of nanoscience to biology and the environment.

"Emerging technologies present new opportunities for improving the human condition, but they also have the potential for unforeseen negative environmental consequences," said Mark Wiesner, director of EESI, "Nanotechnologies hold great promise for creating new means of detecting pollutants, cleaning polluted waste streams, recovering materials before they become wastes and expanding available resources," Wiesner said. "But the nanotechnology industry is just now emerging, so we need to question whether it presents new environmental challenges so that the products of nanochemistry do not become dangerous environmental pollutants."

    "Where this powerful technology is concerned, a nanogram of prevention is worth a kilogram of cure. Let's start thinking about nanoterrorism now, while we have the luxury of time. It's a luxury that won't last forever."    
    — Glenn Reynolds    

The workshop also included a second day that was "a closed-door session in which scientists [conferred] on priorities for research in the field, resulting in a research priorities briefing document."

An article in the Houston Chronicle ("Nanotech encounters new barrier: Environmental risks rise as costs decline", by Eric Berger, 11 December 2001) provided brief coverage of the workshop.

According to the article, "Scientists working in the realm of the ultra-small are concerned about the artificial material becoming an environmental pollutant. During a conference . . .at Rice University, nearly a dozen scientists spoke of nanotechnology's potential environmental risks, such as increasing the amount of pesticides a fish might ingest." The article consistently refers to possible nanotechnology devices as "the material", as if it were a single uniform substance . . . (sigh). The article did include some interesting quotes that highlight the current lack of knowledge on the possible environmental impacts of nanotechnology:

"This is the Darth Vader side of nanotechnology," said Rice professor Richard Smalley, a nanotech booster, who won a Nobel Prize for his work in the field. "It is conceivable that some variance of the nanotechnology we will make will have a very nasty future. There will be all sorts of applications in nature, either wittingly or unwittingly."

"Is this the dark side of nanotechnology?" asked Rice University bioengineering professor Jennifer West. "Hopefully there's nothing we'll find that we can't overcome. However, there really hasn't been enough research done to know what the biological impact of nanoindustry will be."

And according to a report on the Small Times website ("U.S. Regulators want to know whether nanotech can pollute", by Doug Brown, 8 March 2002), "The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is gathering information on the potential perils of nanotechnology even while it's enlisting the science in its fight against pollution."

While the EPA will continue to fund research into way to use nanotechnology to clean up the environment and to prevent future environmental damage (see Foresight Update #44), the EPA will also pay for research projects that examine possible negative environmental impacts of nanotechnology, said Barbara Karn, the EPA official in charge of the agency's nanotechnology research.

"We decided that if indeed it's true that this will revolutionize our industries and how we do business, then it behooves us to be proactive about this, and to look at both the dark and the bright side" of nanotechnology, said Karn. "There are always possibilities for environmental or health harms." In addition to the environmental-effects research, the EPA is paying for new research in 2002 that will investigate different ways nanotechnology will help make the environment cleaner.

Within the EPA, she said, nanotechnology isn't yet high-profile research, but she said it's "getting more play." Eventually, Karn said, the agency should have a number of people fluent in nanotechnology and its environmental and policy issues.

A second Small Times article ("Nano litterbugs? Experts see potential pollution problems", by Doug Brown, 15 March 2002), covers a recent meeting on "Nanotechnology: Environmental Friend or Foe", held on 15 March at the EPA offices in Washington, D.C. The article includes the views of Vicki Colvin, a professor and co-director of the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology ( at Rice University in Texas, and Mark Wiesner, also a Rice University professor and the center's other co-director.

The article also describes an EPA request for proposals (RFP) on "Environmental Futures Research in Nanoscale Science, Engineering and Technology" from the EPA National Center for Environmental Research for research related to the possible environmental impacts of nanotechnology.

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USC Molecular Robotics Lab aims to develop nanorobot swarms for marine research

The Laboratory for Molecular Robotics (LMR; at the University of Southern California School of Engineering has received a $1.5 million research grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) to create swarms of microscopic robots, according to a press release issued on 9 January 2002. The application envisioned for such a system is to monitor potentially dangerous microorganisms in the ocean.

According to Ari Requicha, a USC professor of computer science and the project's principal investigator, the project spans the fields of nanotechnology, robotics, computer science and marine biology, but is centered on the development of the ultra-small robotic sensors and software systems to control them. Requicha said it will be possible to build nanoscale devices with electrical and mechanical components so that the devices could propel themselves, send electronic signals and even compute. While individual nanoscale devices would have limited computing power and capability, the plan is to have vast numbers of them operating in concert.

David Caron, professor of biological sciences and a co-investigator on the project, said ocean robots needn't be terribly complicated or powerful to be useful. A single robot might sense only whether the water is fresh or saline and communicate by a faint radio signal only with other robots closest to it, which would then relay the information to other robots in the network linked to the Internet by still more robots.

In the next year, Caron hopes to attach an antibody to a [scanning] microscope tip. He recently created an antibody that binds to Aureococcus anophagefferens, the toxic algae known as Brown Tide. "That test takes a day in the lab, which is an improvement over current testing, but it's still not fast enough," said Caron. The microscope should detect the algae the instant a microorganism binds to the antibody on its tip.

    "I don't think these robots will be confined to the ocean. We will eventually make robots to hunt down pathogens or repair cells in the human body."    
    — Ari Requicha    

Requicha estimates that it will be a decade before the researchers can build and deploy nanoscale robots in the ocean capable of the kind of instant and specific test like Caron's for Brown Tide. Along the way, he hopes the project will spin off technology in marine biology and other areas.

The USC researchers will first build small robots that will move, sense and communicate while tethered in a tank of water in a laboratory. They will gradually progress to building and controlling increasingly larger numbers of increasingly smaller freely moving robots. The end goal of the project will be to create robots that are as small as the microorganisms that they seek to monitor.

"Today, we commonly do experiments with five or ten robots," said Gaurav Sukhatme, USC assistant professor of computer science and a co-investigator on the project. "But we'll need algorithms to coordinate a million or more robots. That is a daunting problem, and we must start laying out the foundations for large numbers of robots long before they are a reality."

Requicha said that nanotechnology today is at the same stage of development as the Internet was in the late 1960's. "The idea that we'll have swarms of nanorobots in the ocean is no more far-fetched than the idea of connecting millions of computers was then," he said. "I don't think these robots will be confined to the ocean. We will eventually make robots to hunt down pathogens or repair cells in the human body."

A short article on the Small Times website ("Scientists want to send nanobots to search and destroy brown tide", by Richard Acello, 22 January 2002) provides a few additional details on the project.

The project calls for initial designs to be tested in laboratory tanks, but, as the Small Times article notes, eventually the USC team wants to create robots that are as small as the microorganisms that they seek to monitor. Requicha said he'll be ready to move his early stage robots into the ocean "in a couple of years or so."

The article also notes that the long-term goal of the technology, said Requicha, is its use in the human body. "If you can make a system that can detect microorganisms in a marine environment, it could be deployed in blood. If you were successful, you could have artificial cells, you could program an artificial immune system for those with impaired immune systems. The possibilities are amazing."

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From Foresight Update 48, originally published 31 March 2002.