Foresight Update 51

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

Foresight Update 51 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5


Inside Foresight: Focusing on Assemblers

by Ralph Merkle

Ralph Merkle The broad goals of nanotechnology—the ability to inexpensively arrange atoms in most of the ways permitted by physical law—are now widely accepted, but we need more. It is not enough to agree that heavier than air flight is possible, nor is it sufficient to believe that some design based on rockets can reach the moon, nor does the abstract realization that mass can be converted to energy change the course of history. We need to move to the next step: the Wright Brothers, the Apollo Program, the Manhattan Project—we need to translate abstract agreement into a focused and funded project.

This raises the obvious question: focused on what?

Nanosystems gave us a persuasive feasibility argument for assemblers, but didn't give us a design for a specific assembler. For every fundamental design problem, Nanosystems gave us several feasible solutions—but never picked one specific solution. Indeed, one of the main thrusts was that we could have confidence that assemblers were feasible precisely because there were many solutions to every problem—it's difficult to be absolutely certain that a specific solution will work, but when there are many possible solutions available it's almost certain one of them will work.

We have seen continued work on specific aspects of assembler design but we haven't seen a complete design. Such a design (and accompanying analysis) is feasible today, but a complete design will require the work of a team of people for some years. We need to explore the space of possible designs, analyze at least some designs in full detail, and then use those designs as a point of focus for further development. We can start today, but have not.

The major consequence of this failure is continued delay, much of which will be caused by continued confusion about "what is an assembler." While we know that all the fundamental problems can be solved, we don't have a single design or embodiment that selects a specific solution for each problem and integrates those specific solutions into a single unified system. Perhaps more seriously, there is the fog and uncertainty created by mental confusion and misunderstanding. People have a hard time grasping complex arguments and abstract conclusions, and when we are hearing new ideas for the first time it's very easy to get confused. Flight to the moon was thought impossible because "there is no air to push against" in the vacuum of space. Airplane wings push against air, propellers push against air, helicopter blades push against air—surely the proposed space rockets were meant to push against air? But there is no air in space! So can our experience with familiar things mislead us when we consider fundamentally new ideas.

A project with many people must have a clear, detailed, and comprehensive description of both the goal and how to achieve it. We need at least one design for an assembler with all the kinks worked out, all the irritating little design issues settled, all the potential sticking points resolved. Without this, any effort to build an assembler will deteriorate into chaos and confusion as the people involved find themselves working at cross purposes—possibly without even realizing it. If we want to build a heavier-than-air flying machine, and one person designs the blades for a helicopter and another works out the wings of an airplane while a third says we should propel the device by throwing sticks of dynamite out the rear and exploding them, the result will be chaos.

Right now, the detail that we can achieve in a system design is limited by the fact that serious design efforts have so far been limited to one or perhaps two people. We could greatly increase the detail of the design by increasing the number of people (provided they are the right people). Half a dozen to a dozen people, properly coordinated, would be a great improvement over the present situation, and would start to provide us with system designs that had a level of detail that would give us greater collective clarity in understanding the goal and a greater ability to determine the developmental pathways for reaching it.

    We need at least one design for an assembler with all the kinks worked out, all the irritating little design issues settled, all the potential sticking points resolved.    

Besides pursuing designs in greater depth and detail, we should also examine designs that differ radically in their approach and assumptions—we can explore the design space seeking designs that are (for example) easier to build. Consider the Analytical Engine, designed by Babbage in the 1830's. The single most important intellectual development of the 20th century, Babbage's design was never built nor was there any systematic exploration of possible alternatives. Looking back with the advantage of 20-20 hindsight, we can see what Babbage and the rest of the world missed: relays. Relays were known in the 1830's, and were widely deployed in the 1840's for use in telegraphy. Had Babbage and others explored the design space for "Analytical Engines," they might have realized that a relay-based computer was relatively easy to build and quite practical. But they didn't, and so missed an opportunity of historic magnitude.

Let's not miss another opportunity.

Staff Changes

At the office we're greatly missing former Executive Director Chuck Piercey and former Office Manager Harriet Weiss. Chuck resigned in order to deal with a family health issue, while Harriet has moved on to new challenges, but both are continuing as volunteers at Foresight. The board and officers extend our vigorous thanks to both for all their past work and their continuing help.

Ralph Merkle is Foresight's Vice President-Technology Assessment. You can email him at

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Foresight Update 51 - Table of Contents


Molecular Myth, Manufacturing, Money and Mania!

Join us at the Foresight Vision Weekend, May 3-4, 2003

We've are going to discuss some challenging and thought provoking topics at this year's Vision Weekend, Senior Associates Gathering.

The results of these intense brainstorming sessions will be reported to the full group at the meeting and later published on the web.

Some topics that are going to be discussed:

Confirmed Speakers

As author of both Nanosystems and Engines of Creation, Foresight Chairman Eric Drexler has the big picture on smalltech. He'll give us his trajectory for the nanotechnology revolution and what rewards and pitfalls to expect along the way.

Ralph Merkle, computational nanotechnologist extraordinare and Foresight's VP Technology Assessment, gives us his "Top 10" picks for nanotech advances, raises his eyebrows at examples of tech-hype, and sketches the R&D path needed to reach real molecular manufacturing.

Steve Jurvetson, fondly known as "Mr. Nanotech VC", gives us his practical yet visionary perspective on today's nanotech breakthroughs, especially which nanotech startups to watch in the months ahead.

Peter Schwartz, cofounder and chairman of Global Business Network, is an internationally renowned futurist/business strategist and may well be the most alert of that profession—he spotted nanotech in the mid-80's. An expert in scenario planning, Peter believes that nanotechnology is the inevitable technological expression of a new scientific revolution in which physics, chemistry and biology converge at the nanometer scale, moving nanotech to the central position of mainstream scientific and technological development.

Stanford Law professor Lawrence Lessig—"the freedom fighter of the digital world"—is on the front lines in figuring out what's coming and how to maintain the society we want in the face of advancing technology combined with problematic law. How can we help?

Brad Templeton, chairman of Electronic Frontier Foundation, explains how current scary trends in both intellectual property and privacy are setting the stage for very serious problems as nanotech approaches and then arrives in full. What's happening right now will affect what we are allowed to do—and even to know—in the coming age of advanced technologies.

Panel: Security, Privacy & Openness in the Nanotech Era
Eric Drexler, Neil Jacobstein, Steve Jurvetson, Brad Templeton. Moderator: Christine Peterson
A world with tiny weapons will require us to watch out for their abuse—and watch carefully, 24/7. Ever-cheaper surveillance technology is making this possible—at the cost of less privacy—bringing us back to the earlier model of human life when your whole village knew your every move. Can we tolerate this, and if not, what's the alternative?

Aubrey de Grey, researcher on aging at the University of Cambridge, may be the best source of the answer to this question: what therapies can we develop soon to repair the molecular degeneration of aging? He'll tell us how pre-nanotech bioengineering can comprehensively reverse human aging. Let's listen and then implement.

The Softer Side of Foresight
Poet Fred Turner, back by popular demand, raises the hair on the backs of our necks as he declaims his tech-theme poetry. If you've never experienced anything like this, don't miss it—this is how our species shared information before there were books, much less the net, and minds are made for it.

Ed Feigenbaum is one of the early pioneers of Artificial Intelligence research. He has devoted most of his scientific career to the expert systems and knowledge engineering approaches for creating AI software whose behavior is at the level of human expertise (or beyond)—work for which he won the ACM Turing Award. He will explain why the AI scientific effort is so difficult, and he will propose modifications to the famous Turing Test for computational intelligence.

Eliezer Yudkowsky, Research Fellow at the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, looks at the future of software—self-modifying, self-understanding, self-improving. He foresees a major risk from nanotech's expected sudden jump in computing power, and will sketch an approach to avoiding it.

Neil Jacobstein, chairman of the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing, has been working with Stanford's Robert Horn to develop an 'argumentation map' for molecular nanotech. If you've felt frustrated in convincing a listener that molecular manufacturing lies ahead, here's the tool you've been waiting for.

Christine Peterson, Foresight president, takes on the mammoth task of summarizing progress from the Brainstorming/Critiquing/Planning Breakouts. Since in this group the audience tends to equal or exceed the speakers, most "Aha's" for the weekend should be expected here.

Eric Drexler and Christine Peterson lead the wrap-up:

Full-Group Brainstorming for Action
What do you want to do in these fields over the next year, and how can Foresight be of use? Can we set some personal and organizational targets and set next steps to get there? What's the one most important action we must take to succeed at our central goal, and how can we make it happen? There won't be agreement, but there will be insight and maybe brilliance extracted as we pull it all together.

Register Now to Join the Debate—and save $100

The Foresight Vision Conference will be held May 3-4, 2003 at the Hotel Crowne Plaza Cabaña in Palo Alto, Silicon Valley, California. This invigorating meeting is open to current and new Senior Associates. $495 pre-registered, $595 at the door.

Register online at, by email, or call Foresight Institute at 650.917.1121.

*The meeting is off the record; no media write-ups please

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Foresight Update 51 - Table of Contents


Fundamentals of Nanotechnology Tutorial

May 2, 2003

This one-day tutorial is designed for individual who want to get a quick grasp or a refresher of the basics of nanotechnology. Taught by Eric Drexler, Ralph Merkle, Scott Mize and Ed Niehaus this tutorial is organized in four segments. The two segments offered in the morning will cover technical overviews, ethics, history, and politics, while the other two offered in the afternoon will cover the business-oriented side of nanotechnology.

Questions that will be answered:

Who should attend?

Individuals who have some technical background including investors, managers, analyst, attorneys, technical writers and everyone curious about our future are encouraged to attend.

Join these nanotechnology experts:

K. Eric Drexler, Ph.D., Founder of Foresight Institute, and author of Engines of Creation and Nanosystems, will cover "Nanotechnology in Perspective: History, Status and Prospects."

Ralph C. Merkle, Ph.D., will present "What is Nanotechnology: Health, Wealth and the Arrangement of Atoms". Molecular computers more powerful than any of today's, molecular machines that cruise our arteries and zap cancer—these and other changes are coming, but how long will it take and how might it happen?

Scott Mize, Co-founder of AngstroVision, Inc. and Chairman of the Advisory Board for the Nanotechnology Opportunity Report, will explain "Near-Term Commercial Opportunities in Nanotechnology". Mize will discuss nanoscale engineering, current market hype, and key findings from the Nanotechnology Opportunity Report.

Ed Niehaus, Advisor to the Foresight Institute and Advisory Board Member of the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing and Software Development Forum, will discuss "Nanotechnology Business Scenarios."

How to Register:

The Fundamentals of Nanotechnology Tutorial is open to the public. Space is limited; registration is on a first-come, first-served basis. Individuals can register online at or over the telephone at 650.917.1122. Registration for the general public is $475. Current or new Foresight Institute Senior Associates can attend for $225.

The Fundamentals of Nanotechnology tutorial is the kick-off day for the Foresight Vision Weekend, the annual Senior Associate Gathering. This year's Vision Weekend, "Molecular Myth, Manufacturing, Money and Mania: will the real nanotechnology please self-assemble," will be held May 2-4, 2003.

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From Foresight Update 51, originally published 15 April 2003.