Foresight Update 51

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

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


Nanotechnology Goes Mainstream in Parade

Crichton techno-thriller Prey imagines dark side

Nanotechnology took a major step toward becoming a household word with the Nov. 24, 2002 issue of Parade magazine, the nearly universal supplement to Sunday papers across the US. "How nanotechnology is changing our world," by Michael Crichton, was the cover article that spanned pages 6-8. The inside title was "Could Tiny Machines Rule the World?" with the introductory blurb "Today's era of technological power offers enormous promise for the future. But, as the best selling author of The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park reminds us, enormous dangers also may lie ahead."

Crichton writes a well balanced article, and the many spectacular potential benefits of nanotechnology are cited, even more broadly that would be expected for so short an article. K. Eric Drexler is prominently quoted on the need for society to prepare for the coming of nanotechnology, with a large photograph (even larger than the one of Crichton) and Foresight Institute is mentioned twice. Crichton gives a good snapshot of the current state of nanotechnology development, and concludes "We know these machines are coming. We know we will have to control them when they do. It is not too early to plan how we will treat them, what we will allow in the way of research and what we will forbid. ..." The complete text of the article is reprinted below with permission. {Also, see this issue's Media Watch column.}

The Parade article heralded the release of Crichton's new novel Prey, in which "a predatory swarm of microparticles wreaks havoc." Both the Parade article and new novel are significant events in terms of the portrayal of nanotechnology and in terms of forming public perceptions about nanotechnology. We can expect that the novel Prey and the movie that will be made from it will greatly enhance public familiarity with the ideas that nanotechnology is coming, that it will be a very powerful technology, and that bad things will happen if nanotechnology is not developed wisely. With Prey, Crichton has made a major contribution to public education about nanotechnology, which will affect the quality of eventual public discussions. However, while spotlighting major ideas, Prey confuses a few important points.

In Parade, Crichton describes nanotechnology accurately and insightfully, but in Prey technical accuracy and plausibility sometimes take a back seat to storytelling. Several reviews of the novel and critiques of the novel's portrayal of nanotechnology are available on the web (see Nanodot sidebar), but those who have not yet read the novel should be aware of plot-spoiling details revealed by the reviewers.

Judging from the comments of several reviewers of Prey [this writer has bought, but not yet read, Prey], Crichton conveys much information about a wide range of emerging technologies, and makes a serious attempt to educate about the dangers of artificial evolution in the 21st century, but some explanations are superficial and he gets a few important points wrong, leaving a misleading impression about the dangers of improperly regulated nanotechnology. Therefore the reader's attention is not focused on the issues that really need exploration.

For example, the story depends on the spontaneous development of distributed artificial intelligence in a swarm of nanobots. It quite unrealistic to think that nanotechnology will lead to the spontaneous development of intelligent swarms of nanobots. More generally, most of those who read the book or see the movie will think of Prey as a story about an accident caused by nanotechnology. In fact, it is a story of deliberate abuse, of deliberately ignoring reasonable guidelines for the responsible development of a powerful emerging technology.

On nanodot
Prey & Crichton on Nanodot:

Crichton writes a vivid cautionary tale of poorly planned nanotechnology development getting out of hand; however, Chris Phoenix and Glenn Reynolds both point out that the plot for the novel revolves around multiple violations of the Foresight Guidelines on Molecular Nanotechnology (see also Update 41). Thus the types of catastrophe that lie that lie at the center of Crichton's plot are already believed to be avoidable, while the types of abuses that most need to be considered are not addressed.

Reynolds perhaps best puts the novel in perspective. "I'm delighted to see that Crichton is using his novel to push for responsible discussion, rather than hysterical overreaction, to the issues raised by nanotechnology. Novels can raise awareness. But only a fool expects a novel to actually answer questions about the wisdom of new technologies."

Reaction to Prey reported in the press reveals some of the deeper issues facing the nanotechnology community. "Attack of the Killer Dust," by Heather Green, published in Business Week Dec. 2, 2002, uses the release of Prey to point out that "nanotech has a scary side". Heather Green quotes Neil Gershenfeld, director of the Center for Bits & Atoms at Massachusetts Institute of Technology as saying "These technologies have risks. There is great value in taking stock of them." On the other hand, Harvard University chemistry professor George Whitesides and chemistry Nobel Prize laureate Richard Smalley of Rice University believe that even if such 'bots could be created, they would not be able to place atoms precisely where required. [For more on arguments about the feasibility of molecular assemblers, see Update 46.] Computer scientist and inventor Ray Kurzweil is quoted presenting a counterargument, that rapidly improving computer tools will bring assemblers sooner than most scientists think possible. Agreeing with Glenn Reynolds, Green concludes that "Crichton's scare scenarios play a useful role. Under the public's watchful eye, researchers are more likely to proceed with caution—and continue to develop technologies that will help protect us from ourselves."

The Economist ("Trouble in nanoland: Plagued by both pessimism and hype, can nanotechnology grow up?" Dec. 5, 2002) includes the publication of Prey as the first example of negative attention that progress in nanotechnology is now drawing. After contrasting pessimistic visions of out-of-control self-replicating nanobots with one current laboratory milestone in molecular nanotechnology, The Economist concludes, "...there is a huge technological gap between molecular cascades and fully-functional nanobots. The rest of the world, then, should not hold its breath."

Perhaps it is fair to say that Prey has the potential to be a double-edged sword, bringing familiarity with some of the potentials of molecular nanotechnology to a much wider audience, but also giving alarmist ammunition to those who favor banning nanotechnology. The challenge would then be to use the public interest generated by the novel, and eventually by the movie, to focus dialog on the real issues in the development of molecular manufacturing, and how to solve the problems that can be expected.

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Foresight Update 51 - Table of Contents


How nanotechnology is changing our world

Reprinted, with permission, from Parade Magazine

Could Tiny Machines Rule The World?
Copyright Parade; New York; Nov 24, 2002
Michael Crichton,

Today's era of technological power offers enormous promise for the future. But, as the best-selling author of The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park reminds us, enormous dangers also may lie ahead.

In Michael Crichton's latest novel, "Prey," due in stores tomorrow, a predatory swarm of microparticles wreaks havoc. We asked the author to explain the real-life science behind nanotechnology—and its potential impact on our lives.

From our earliest days as cave-dwelling apes, human beings have advanced their lives with technology. Beginning with tools made of stone and bone, we have moved to metals and then to synthetic materials not found in nature. Some of our technologies are enormous—huge dams, bridges and jet aircraft—and some are microscopically small, like the computer chips so important to nearly every aspect of our lives and the genetically modified bacteria that create new drugs for us.

All together, our history with technology goes back 2 million years or more. We have reluctantly learned that every technology brings mixed blessings. The jet aircraft draws people closer together; it also erodes national cultures. The automobile offers personal mobility; it also pollutes and locks us in traffic jams. Yet our fascination with new technologies remains undiminished, and we continue to innovate at a rapid rate.

Today, in the 21st century, we are plunging forward into a new era of technological power, one that offers enormous promise for the future and enormous dangers as well.

Imagine a mass of tiny computers, smaller than specks of dust, programmed to travel in a cloud over a country like Iraq and send back pictures. Unlike robot aircraft, this camera can't be shot down; bullets will pass right through it.

Because such tiny computers will deteriorate in time, imagine that they are made to be self-reproducing, to replenish themselves. Imagine that the computers begin to evolve, and the aggregate cloud becomes a death-dealing swarm that threatens mankind—in effect, a mechanical plague.

Far-fetched? Not really.

Scientists have worried about a new class of artificial organisms for more than 10 years. As one research paper put it, "These organisms will...originally be designed by humans. However, they will reproduce and will 'evolve' into something other than their original form; they will be 'alive' under any reasonable definition of the word ...The pace of evolutionary change will be extremely rapid...The impact on humanity and the biosphere could be enormous—larger than the Industrial Revolution, nuclear weapons or environmental pollution. We must take steps now to shape the emergence of artificial organisms."

These organisms will be created by nanotechnology, perhaps the most radical technology in human history: the quest to build man-made machines of extremely small size, on the order of 100 nanometers, or 100/billionths of a meter. Such machines would be 1000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. Experts predict that these tiny machines will provide everything from miniaturized computer components to new medical treatments to new military weapons. In the 21st century, they will change our world totally.

The potential benefits are spectacular: Tiny robots may crawl through your arteries, cutting away atherosclerotic plaque; powerful drugs will be delivered to individual cancer cells, leaving other cells undamaged; teeth will be self-repairing. Cosmetically, you will change your hair color with an injection of nanomachines that circulate through the body, moving melanocytes in hair follicles. Other nanomachines will lighten or darken skin color at will, removing blemishes, birthmarks and liver spots in the process; still others could cleanse the mouth and eliminate bad breath. Nonsurgical nanoprocesses could even perform liposuction and body reshaping. They also will repair knees and spines.

Living spaces will be transformed, with self-cleaning dishes and carpets and permanently clean bathrooms. Windows will lighten or darken at will; programmable paint will change color. You can walk through the walls of your house, since they are composed of particle clouds. Your personal computer and your watch will be painted on your arm. Temperature-sensitive clothing will loosen when it gets hot, insulate when it gets cold.

In this vision of the future, roving nanomachines will convert trash dumps to energy; solar nanomachines will coat your house, generating electricity; flexible nanomachines will provide earthquake protection. It even may be possible to move your house on the backs of millions of nanomachines, creeping across the lawn.

As a concept, these wonders date back to a 1959 speech by Caltech physicist Richard Feynman titled "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom." Forty years later, nanotechnology is still very much in its infancy, despite relentless media hype. Yet practical advances are now being made, and funding has increased dramatically. Major corporations such as IBM, Fujitsu and Intel are pouring money into research. The U.S. government is spending more than $600 million on nanotechnology a year.

Meanwhile, nanotechniques already are being used to make sunscreens, stain-resistant fabrics and composite materials in cars. Soon they will be used to make computers and storage devices of extremely small size.

Some of the long-anticipated "miracle" products have started to appear as well. One company is now making self-cleaning window glass; another is making a nanocrystal wound dressing with antibiotic and anti-inflammatory properties.

At the moment, nanotechnology is primarily a materials technology, but its potential goes far beyond that. For decades there has been speculation about self-reproducing machines. In 1980, a NASA paper discussed several methods by which such machines could be made. Now, at the start of the 21st century, we are closer still. Most experts predict that self-reproducing machines are only a decade away. These are the people who say we must prepare now for their arrival.

  K. Eric Drexler, a nanotechnology expert and founder of the Foresight Institute, sits in front of a computer image of a diamondoid molecular bearing model. K. Eric Drexler
© 2002 Peter Menzel
"Many people, including myself, are quite queasy about the consequences of this technology," says K. Eric Drexler  

It's worth remembering that we already have some experience with man-made, self-reproducing entities released in the environment. The first of these, of course, were computer viruses. Our history with them is instructive.

The first viruses were created as a game—"core wars," a 1960s battle between mainframe programmers, each releasing a program into the others' mainframe computer. The game was limited to specialists, but it was not long before hackers began to experiment as well. The growth of computer networking made rapid worldwide transmission possible, and what was originally a specialist's interest became an international threat to information and global business.

We have lived for some years with the first of these self-replicating entities, computer viruses. And we have learned, with time, to protect our networks more carefully and to treat virus-makers with ever-greater harshness. More recently, we are beginning to see some of the problems of self-replicating biotechnology agents.

The recent report that modified maize genes now appear in native maize in Mexico—despite laws against it and efforts to prevent it—is only the start of what we may expect to be a long journey to control this new technology. The end result cannot be doubted. We have learned to put hackers in jail. Errant biotechnologists will soon join them.

And we may hope that by the time we have the first nanomachines, we will have settled upon international controls to deal with self-reproducing technologies. At the moment, there are essentially no laws dealing with this subject. The failure to look ahead is worrisome to experts in the field. In the words of the chief proponent of nanotechnology, K. Eric Drexler of the Foresight Institute:

"There are many people, including myself, who are quite queasy about the consequences of this technology for the future. We are talking about changing so many things that the risk of society handling it poorly through lack of preparation is very large."

We know these machines are coming. We know we will have to control them when they do. It is not too early to plan how we will treat them, what we will allow in the way of research and what we will forbid. Historically, human beings have a poor record of addressing the hazards of new technologies as they arrive. We generally pass laws after the accidents occur. But in the case of self-reproducing machines, we simply can't wait.

Michael Crichton's latest novel, "Prey" (HarperCollins), arrives tomorrow.

Note: The Parade article was illustrated with several artistic renderings of nanobots that are versions of exhibits in the Nanomedicine Art Gallery. The caption: "A nanorobot with a camera, sent into a blood vessel (illustration at left [Nanomedicine Art Gallery exhibits 168 and 169]), and dental nanorobots (opposite page [Nanomedicine Art Gallery exhibit 161]) could change health care."

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Foresight Update 51 - Table of Contents


11th Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology

October 9-12, 2003, San Francisco Airport Marriott, Burlingame, CA, USA.

The Foresight Conference covers the key topics required for an integrated understanding of molecular nanotechnology.

The Foresight Institute's first Conference on Nanotechnology, which pre-dated the National Nanotechnology Initiative by a decade, was the first comprehensive conference on the topic of nanotechnology.

Foresight sponsored events continue to be the premiere venue for discussing new and innovative multidisciplinary research in nanotechnology. Last year's conference, the 10th in the series, attracted researchers from academic, government and industrial laboratories world-wide, and included papers from the electronics, medical, computing, and biological communities.

Foresight's 11th Conference will continue this level of excellence by providing a forum in which leaders from all disciplines delving into science and technology at the nanoscale can present and discuss their most recent results and ideas.

Why you should attend!

This is a forum where pioneers, students, and scientists meet to hear about scientific breakthroughs in the evolving field of nanotechnology.

Keynote Speakers:

Fraser Stoddart, University of California at Los Angeles
Meccano on the NanoScale: A Blueprint for Making Some of the World's Tiniest Machines

Tobin J. Marks, Northwestern University
Nanophotonic Structures by Molecular Self-Assembly

2003 Foresight Institute Feynman Prize Winners
Recipients of Theory and Experimental prizes prestigious will present their research

Invited Speakers:

Hicham Fenniri, Purdue University
Organic Nanotubes with Tunable Dimensions and Properties

Jan Genzer, North Carolina State University
Material Templating through Substrate-bound Molecular and Macromolecular Gradients

Cherie Kagan, IBM Watson
Layer-by-layer Construction of Molecular Materials and Devices

Mayra Liberman, Notre Dame
Molecular Quantum-dot Cellular Automata: Computation without Current

Mark S. Lundstrom, Purdue University
Carbon Nanotube Electronics: Device Physics, Technology, and Applications

Seth Marder, University of Arizona
Two-Photon Micro and Nanofabrication of 3D Structures

Susan Sinnott, University of Florida
Nanometer-Scale Engineering of Composites

Donald A. Tomalia, Central Michigan Univ. & Dendritic Nanotechnologies Ltd.
Nanoscale Structure Control Within and Beyond Poly(amidoamine) Dendrimers

Conference Co-chairs: James Spencer, Syracuse University &
Chris Gorman, North Carolina State University
Tutorial Chair: Hicham Fenniri, Purdue University

Topics to be covered:

Nanodevices · Molecular Machines
Nanostructures · Scanning Probes
Nanotubes · Nanoelectronics
Biomolecular Machinery · Sensors
Nanomaterials · Self-Assembly
Supramolecular Chemistry
Computational Chemistry

General Conference Information

Call for Abstracts — Due June 2, 2003

Scientific Tutorial — October 9, 2003

Oral Presentation Opportunities:
Speaker sessions scheduled for Friday through Sunday.

Poster Presentation Opportunities:
The poster session reception will be held on Friday afternoon. On Saturday there will be additional time for attendees to view and discuss the posters.

Sponsorship Opportunities:
To have your company listed as a sponsor of the Foresight Conference, contact Yakira Heyman,


Call for Abstracts

Deadline June 2, 2003

Submit your abstracts and share your scientific breakthroughs in the evolving field of nanotechnology with other pioneers, students, and scientists.

Abstracts for both oral presentations and posters are due June 2, 2003. Acceptance notices by July 1. Please submit your abstracts on the web

Questions? Please contact the conference co-chairs,
James Spencer, or
Chris Gorman,


Gold Level Sponsor

Sun Microsystems logo Molecular electronic or nanodevices may find wide application in personal digital assistants, if power and size objectives can be met. Nanotechnology is an exciting, growing field, thanks in large part to Foresight Institute. Founded in 1982, Sun Microsystems is a leading supplier of UNIX servers. Sun uses state-of-the-art silicon CPU technology in its machines. Molecular electronics might offer a number of solutions in the form of fast, ultradense SRAM. Other applications include backing store and potentially dense logic.

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From Foresight Update 51, originally published 15 April 2003.