Foresight Update 52

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

Foresight Update 52 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5


Media Watch.52

by Judy Conner

Judy Conner

Foresight Ideas and other Nano Media

When researching this column, I was curious about the increase of nanotech coverage. According to our clipping service there were 10 articles that mentioned nanotechnology in 1986. A year later, it jumped to 140, and these were mostly prompted by the release of Engines of Creation. In 2003, according to the same clipping service, there were over 1,000 articles mentioning nanotechnology in one month.

I realize this isn't a major surprise for anyone who has been tracking nanotech. What is surprising is the ideas being frequently discussed are those originally introduced in Engines of Creation and advocated by Foresight Institute since its founding 1986.

Foresight Institute has dedicated itself to the promotion of dialog, pursuit of a cohesive public policy, and educating our society about clearly defined ideas. These ideas are increasingly mentioned and receiving serious consideration in mainstream science and popular media. They include but are not limited to the following: molecular manufacturing is coming; it is powerful; it has potential benefits and abuses; our society needs to be prepared for this technology; stopping nanotechnology is not feasible; and there is a need for guidelines.

In the July 4, 2003 issue of Science an article by David Malakoff titled "Congress Wants Studies of Nanotech's Dark Side," supports the ideas that our society needs to be prepared, there are potential benefits and abuses, and that ethical guidelines are important.

"Researchers have touted nanotechnology — an array of techniques that allow the manipulation of matter at the atomic scale — as the next big thing, producing everything from better materials to tiny robots. But some commentators warn of a darker side."

The article continues to examine how current legislature is proposing to tackle the ethics issue of nanotechnology in both the US and the UK.

"The U.S. Congress is on the verge of approving legislation that would require the government to study the implications of nanotechnology at the same time it pumps funds into the promising field. The U.K. government is also moving to probe nanotech's promise and peril."

The article elaborates on the different approaches the US legislative bodies are considering to fund and guide the downsides.

"The House and Senate agree and have recently moved bills (H.R. 766 and S. 189) that would require the government to fund studies on the social, economic, and environmental impacts of civilian nanotechnology as part of a $1-billion-a-year research program. But the two bodies disagree on the best way to examine these ethical issues."

Some House lawmakers proposed earmarking 5% of spending for societal impact studies, while the House Science Committee rejected this path; opting instead to have nanotechnology researchers incorporate societal studies into their technical work. The Senate passed a bill in June which also rejected a set-aside for ethical studies, but it authorizes $5 million a year to establish an American Nanotechnology Preparedness Center to examine ethical issues related to this technology.

Christine Peterson, President of Foresight Institute, was quoted in this article commenting on the different approaches.

The House "asks an awful lot from researchers who are focused on their [other] works," says Christine Peterson of Foresight Institute, a California-based think tank.

The full article is available at: (fee may be required)

In the July 16, 2003 issue of Wall Street Journal an article by Tom Becker, titled "Self-Healing Materials Aren't Far Off" supports the idea that molecular nanotechnology is coming, it is powerful, and that it has potential benefits.

"The 1991 film 'Terminator 2: Judgment Day' introduced the world to a robot assassin that could instantly repair itself from shotgun blasts and molten lava bursts. More than a decade later, researchers aren't far from their quest to design materials — plastics, metals, and even cement — that can heal themselves. The hope is to build lighter airplanes that use less fuel, to construct building and bridges with stronger, more flexible steel, and to pave a road with cement that heals itself at the first sign of a crack. Researchers believe this technology could save industries and governments billions of dollars if they can harness it in an inexpensive way."

When asked about "Self-Healing Materials" Christine Peterson, President of Foresight Institute was quoted below:

"We're moving towards a time when the physical objects around us will be made of active materials that can change shape, heal themselves and have built-in computation," said Christine Peterson, president of Foresight Institute, a non-profit think tank. "Right now most objects are stupid objects with no ability to responds to us. One day we'll be able to signal them to change in some way we desire."

The article states that commercial industries are reticent to get more involved in the molecular nanotechnology research, because commercial applications are more likely of being achieved in five years than a year or two.

"Most industries want the solution yesterday," said Surendra Shah, director of the Center for Advanced Cement-based Materials at Northwestern University. "Much of this research is being done at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. One of the goals is to have self-healing structures in outer space."

Find the full article at: (fee may be required)

In the August 1-7, 2003 Silicon Valley Biz Ink article by Rhonda Ascierto, titled "Building a future society one atom at a time," Christine Peterson was interviewed in a Q&A, which elaborates on the Foresight Institute assertion that our society needs to be prepared.

Q. Why should we (society and business professionals) care about nanotech?

A. Christine Peterson responds - "In our lives as business people, we have a certain time horizon. Generally, because of the nature of the businesses we are in, we have to take fairly short-time horizon; the most that very top companies can look out is about five years. But in our private lives — as citizens, parents, and individuals — our time frame is actually quite long; it's a number of decades. We save for retirement; we save for our children's college education. So it's important as individuals for us to look seriously at the prospects for long-term nanotechnology and what it could mean for our children, our grandchildren and ourselves.

Q. Are the ethical issues of nanotechnology applications being addressed?

A. Christine Peterson responds – "There's a lot of discussion about ethical issues surrounding nanotechnology and it should be interesting to see whether, in fact, it helps. I just finished testifying for the House Science Committee on ethical issues in nanotechnology. And there's going to be substantial money spent in the new nanotechnology bill on societal consequences and ethical issues. It is unusual for a new technology with applications so far off, to have so much being spent on ethical issues."

To read the entire interview go to:

In the September 2003 issue of PCFormat, a Q&A interview with Eric Drexler by Luis Villazon posed several thoughtful questions which illustrate the Foresight Institute viewpoint that molecular nanotechnology is coming.

Q. When you wrote Engines of Creation, did you think that we would be further ahead by now or are you satisfied with current progress?

A. Eric Drexler responds – "Progress in the fundamental technology has been impressive, but I have been surprised by the confusion regarding longer term objectives. It seems that many lab-oriented scientists lack the systems engineering perspective needed to understand the vision and its consequences. Nonetheless, the rising tide of nanotechnologies will eventually get us there."

Q. What about nanotech weapons? Aren't they a terrorist's dream? Should nanotechnology research be treated like nuclear research with strict international monitoring and supervision?

A. Eric Drexler responds – "Present nanotech research is far from the ability to build molecular manufacturing systems or unconventional nanotech weapons, and shouldn't be hobbled by inappropriate regulation. It's not too early to start thinking about (strict arms-control) but we need to remember that merely calling research 'nanotechnology' doesn't make it dangerous."

For the full interview go to (Fee may be required)

Recent Released Books:

Along with the increase in media coverage on nanotechnology, there has also been a noticeable increase in the publishing of books on the subject. Here too is evidence of Foresight Institute ideas reaching a broader audience and receiving consideration, some positive and some negative.

Foresight Institute Feynman Prize winner Mark Ratner co-authored with his brother Daniel Ratner the book, Nanotechnology: A Gentle Introduction to the Next Big Idea, which is written for the non-scientist. This book provides an overview of the near-term nano-field. It is an introduction for those who are nano novices, but the book ignores long-term, visionary ideas associated with molecular nanotechnology. It is a basic how-to kind of book, but if you are seeking vision and inspiration it won't be found here.

William Atkinson, business and science writer, released the book, Nanocosm: The Big Change That's Coming from the Very Small. Foresight Senior Associate Chris Phoenix reviewed the book at length and it spurred a lively debate between the two. This debate is hosted on the website, which is the creation of Foresight Senior Associate Rocky Rawstern. You can read the entire debate at the following link:

Here are the highlights: The debate began with Phoenix reviewing the book. In his review, he discussed the negative treatment of Eric Drexler and the potential of molecular nanotechnology and self-assemblers. The debate continued, resulting in both Atkinson and Phoenix conceding on some points and acknowledging their differences.

William Atkinson Concessions: An assembler might conceivably be possible, Chris's arguments have made quite an impression, "Nanoboosters" might actually have a contribution to make, and the simplicity of operation might possibly offset the complexity of design.

W.K. Arguments: Smalley says nanobots can't work, nanobots haven't been demonstrated; they're still completely imaginary, not all issues have been demonstrably solved, the burden of proof is on the Molecular Assembler people, calculations alone cannot demonstrate that an molecular assembler is possible, and that the Molecular Assembler people must make concessions to be successful and mainstream.

Chris Phoenix Concessions: We can't be sure we've found all the problems yet, diamondoid construction is limited, transformative technologies can't be recognized, and they never get special handling.

C. P. Arguments: Why Smalley's verdict on nanobots is questionable, mechanical chemistry has been demonstrated, nanobots are hard—and useful—for the same reasons computers are, Drexler deserves less criticism, and the first computer design was criticized on the same grounds.

To keep up-to-date on media that mentions Foresight Institute and nanotechnology, check out on a regular basis.

Judy Conner is the Public Service Communications Manager at Foresight Institute. She can be reached at

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Foresight Update 52 - Table of Contents


Foresight Vision Weekend

"Molecular Myth, Manufacturing, Money and Mania—Will the real nanotechnology please self assemble!"

Congressman Brad Sherman
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), who attended the entire Gathering, interjects wit and political insight into discussions during the Foresight Vision Weekend.

Foresight and IMM Senior Associates gathered in Palo Alto on May 3-4 to consider the huge revolutions in technology that are expected to show up in the next 5-to-30 years — how they'll change our lives, and how to influence them.

Eric Drexler opened the Vision Weekend with a description of the expected early 21st century revolution in material technology in which atoms and molecules will be handled by molecular machine systems in a rapid and general purpose way similar to the way in which the late 20th century revolution in information technology has allowed information to be handled. A critical difference between the two revolutions, however, is that molecular machine systems are themselves made of atoms, so that these systems will be able to make copies of themselves, making all manufacturing extremely inexpensive. Among all of the miracles that this technology will enable is, however, the specter of overwhelmingly powerful, non-lethal weapon systems, which will make using force all the easier because the weapons will be non-lethal. Such a world will need some broad coalition of forces to keep order while avoiding oppression. The key obstacle to progress toward such a world is the current lack of focus on building better molecular machine systems.

Steve Jurvetson provided his perspective as a VC focused on opportunities of the next few years inspired by the more distant vision of molecular manufacturing. After pointing to a number of very promising scientific developments (quantum computing, molecular electronics, genomics as a source of pre-built nanoscale components), Jurvetson tackled the crucial difference between a science project and a long-term business opportunity—the presence of revenues. Early revenues are present in tools for nanotechnology, bulk nano-powders, and sensors. The middle term (3-5 years) could bring revenues from two-dimensional nanoelectronic computer memories, displays, solar cells, hierarchically -structured nanomaterials, and drug delivery. Jurvetson's advice for investing as technology accelerates: look for disruptive businesses that were not possible before.

Stanford Law professor Lawrence Lessig examined how to inoculate the law so that excessive legal interference does not hinder nanotechnology, as it has the digital revolution. The constitution grants strong protection against government regulation of free speech, but no protection against government regulation of matter, so the fear is that government will regulate nanotechnology as matter . One approach: argue that protecting nanotechnology research (the manipulation of atoms) is similar to protecting the manipulation of words. A second problem is that the digital revolution has seen even the protection of free speech eroded by greater protection for property rights, exemplified by copyright term extensions, which act to protect monopolies from competition. So a second priority is to develop patent laws that act to protect innovation, not monopolies.

Futurist and business strategist Peter Schwartz reflected on whether the advent of nanotechnology is a signal of a new scientific revolution. The recent discoveries that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, and that 96% of the mass-energy of the universe is in the form of dark matter and dark energy are examples of anomalies not explained by current understanding. Examples of new tools enabling a revolution include scanning probe microscopes, femto-second cameras, and the ability to rapidly sequence and manipulate genomes.

Computational nanotechnologist Ralph Merkle presented his list of 11 top nanotechnology advances of the past year, including among them IBM's demonstration of "the world's smallest computer" (cascading CO molecules pushed around a copper surface using an STM to perform digital logic functions), the TIGR and IBEA "minimal genome" project to build an organism having only the 300 genes thought to be essential for survival under laboratory conditions, the isolation of higher adamantanes from petroleum (see Update 51), the IBM Millipede project, work by Hla and Rieder on using STM control of chemical reactions to construct single molecules (see Recent Progress, this issue), and the publication of Nanomedicine Vol. IIA (see review). Individual experiments, however, are not likely to produce assemblers any time soon, leading Merkle to consider how to reduce the "fear, uncertainty, and doubt" concerning detailed design and analysis of the systems, sub-systems, and parts needed to build an assembler.

Brad Templeton, chairman of Electronic Frontier Foundation, reviewed a variety of alternatives to the current, unsatisfactory copyright system that could support a creative economy. His own proposal: "micro-refunds," in which users would automatically make small payments, but could explicitly ask for refunds if dissatisfied.

Aging researcher Aubrey de Grey proposed an engineering approach to minimize the damage from human aging (SENS: Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) that would not require first developing a molecular manufacturing technology. Seven major categories of aging-related damage have been identified, and for each category techniques exist that should be able to reverse the damage. De Grey estimates that for a billion dollars, it should be possible within ten years to demonstrate in mice more than trebling the remaining years of life, even if treatment is not begun until the human equivalent of 50-60 years of age.

Artificial Intelligence pioneer Ed Feigenbaum reformulated the famous Turing Test to propose as a goal for the next stage of AI the more manageable 'Feigenbaum Test': focus on natural science, engineering, or medicine with conversation in the jargon and stylized language of these disciplines. Could a practitioner of the discipline distinguish the AI from a colleague? Other challenges for AI include building a huge knowledge base by reading text and by using semantic markups to harvest knowledge from the WWW.

Eliezer Yudkowsky, Research Fellow at the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, gave a talk on "The Foundations of Order", the differences among emergence, evolution, and intelligence as sources of complexity. Noting that the human virtues of love, beauty, altruism, etc. arose from 3.85 Gyr (billion years) of combat (evolution), Yudkowsky wants to end the combat and build 'humaneness' into the recursive improvement of designed intelligence to yield what he terms 'Friendly AI', which would feature super-morality as well as super-intelligence. His major worry is that the progress of Moore's Law will enable AI by brute force before we learn how to make Friendly AI.

Congressman Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) was drawn to serve on the House Science Committee by his concern that 'engineered intelligence', whether biological or computational in origin, would help or eventually replace humans. After sharing this concern, Congressman Sherman talked about the role of government in developing nanotechnology, both as a source of funding and as a regulator. Specifically he discussed the amendments he had offered a few days before in the Science Committee on H.R. 766, the Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003 that would require studies of the societal and ethical implications of nanotechnology, and of molecular manufacturing.

H.R.766 and a companion bill in the Senate (S. 189, the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act) both provide a formal structure for government support of nanotechnology and authorize increased funding. Earlier versions were put forward in the House and Senate last year (see Update 50), but not enacted prior to Congress adjourning.

As passed by the full House a few days after the Vision Weekend, Sec. 8 of H.R. 766 requires that the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) conduct periodic reviews of the Program. The second of the mandated reviews stipulates that "Not later than 3 years after the date of enactment of this Act ... a review shall be conducted ... that includes a study to determine the technical feasibility of the manufacture of materials and devices at the molecular scale." Further, if the study concludes that molecular manufacturing is technically feasible, the NAS is instructed to estimate a time frame for commercial scale implementation and a research agenda to achieve the result. The third mandated review, due no later than 6 years after enactment, requires assessing "the need for standards, guidelines, or strategies for ensuring the development of safe nanotechnology" and makes special mention of "self-replicating nanoscale machines or devices" and "the use of nanotechnology as human brain extenders" and "in developing artificial intelligence."

On June 19, the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee approved S. 189. If full Senate approval follows, the next step would be a committee to resolve the differences between the two bills. The most controversial difference is that the Senate bill calls for a distinct advisory committee on nanotechnology, while the House version follows the Bush administration's preference to use the President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology.

Neil Jacobstein, chairman of IMM, presented work he has been doing with Stanford's Robert Horn to develop an 'argumentation map' for molecular nanotechnology to address a range of issues that need to be effectively argued, ranging from the technical feasibility of molecular manufacturing to effects upon wealth distribution to the religious and philosophical issues raised by many implications of advanced nanotechnology. The task will be complicated by the high degree of scientific and technical illiteracy in the general public, causing many to fear that the world will accelerate out of their cognitive reach. Molecular manufacturing will benefit all, but those who live in desperate poverty may be willing to risk more than those who are wealthy and comfortable.

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Foresight Update 52 - Table of Contents


Credits and Kudos

Christine Peterson

Special thanks this time go to Yakira Heyman, outgoing — in both senses of the word — Director of Development for Foresight. We envy her new employer and already greatly miss the sunshine she brought every day to our office. We look forward to seeing her at future Foresight events.

Immense thanks go to two key volunteers: David Black, who is coordinating all three prizes this year (Feynman, Communication, and Student), and Rochelle Fuller, who is commuting a long way to donate her time assisting with Foresight administrative tasks. It's hard to thank them enough for this work.

In Washington, thanks go to Senior Associate Dick Smith and wife Sara Larch for hosting me when I visited to testify for the House Science Committee. More recently, Tim Kyger dropped everything almost overnight to fly to DC as our new Washington Representative.

Web upgrades occur continuously thanks to ongoing work by CIO Ben Harper (more a volunteer than a paid staffer), Stephan Spencer of Netconcepts, and, on the Senior Associate site, John Bashinski.

As this is written the technical conference committee, led by co-chairs James Spencer, Chris Gorman, and tutorial chair Hicham Fenniri, are working furiously to ensure that this October's meeting will be the best yet.

Thanks for this year's successful Foresight Vision Conference, also known as the Senior Associate Gathering, go to all the speakers and to volunteers Sharon Barrington, Matthew Fulvio, Norm Hardy, Jeffrey Johnston, Tanya Jones, Hilary Karls, Eric Messick, Thomas McLaughlin, Norma Peterson, Kelly Plughoff, and Tihamer Toth-Fejel. Norma also runs errands for us year-round.

As always, ongoing thanks to all those who submit information to Foresight, especially those who are able to send that info to in the preferred format—this is greatly appreciated.

— Christine Peterson, President, Foresight Institute

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Foresight Institute's goal is to guide emerging technologies to improve the human condition. Foresight focuses its efforts upon nanotechnology and upon systems that will enhance knowledge exchange and critical discussion, thus improving public and private policy decisions. Read more at


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Foresight Update 52 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5

From Foresight Update 52, originally published 31 August 2003.