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Foresight Update 53

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

Foresight Update 53 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5

Inside Foresight: The Evolution of Foresight's Message

by Christine L. Peterson

Christine Peterson Foresight has been educating the public on molecular nanotechnology (MNT) since 1986, and the situation has changed drastically over that time. We've always tried to put forward a balanced message, describing the immense benefits to be expected from this powerful coming technology, while also presenting some possible downsides and ways to avoid them. And we've largely succeeded: most coverage of nanotechnology in the popular press mentions both sides—positive articles at least touch on potential negative effects, while negative writeups give a nod to beneficial applications. There's a rough balance of ideas, an acknowledgement from both pro- and anti-technology camps that the other side may have a point. That's better than what we see in debates in many other areas of technology.

Need to emphasize positive uses

But a number of factors are pushing the balance of MNT discussion toward the negative side. As far back as April 2000, Bill Joy's article on "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us" in Wired magazine stimulated much negative discussion, although Joy himself also points out positive uses. The ETC Group, an advocacy organization promoting social justice, publicized the dangers of 'grey goo' so vigorously that the U.K.'s Prince Charles became alarmed, triggering large amounts of negative media coverage. Most colorful has been Michael Crichton's horror novel Prey, soon to be a major (and terrifying) motion picture. Both ETC and Crichton point out positive aspects—Crichton by writing a reasonable article for Parade magazine, circulation 35 million—but the overall effect has been to trigger fear.

A new organization, the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, is also presenting both sides of MNT—but again, the net effect is an emphasis on potential dangers, which CRN portrays as urgent, requiring immediate action.

Contributing to the negative slant is spillover from concerns about health and environmental effects of nanoparticles, such as fullerenes and nanotubes. The ETC Group has been the most active at bringing these issues to public attention, and has even called for a moratorium on research until these issues are addressed. Note that their call applies not just to product deployment, but to research itself.

Given this external situation, Foresight's role needs to change. If we want a balanced discussion, the positive uses of MNT need a lot more emphasis. Given our long-term goals, we're the natural choice to attempt to restore a balance to this worldwide debate. Therefore, close watchers of our message may notice a shift toward beneficial uses of MNT.

Advocacy of rapid MNT development

Nanotechnology as a generic field did not gain widespread credibility until the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative was announced. The application of public funds gave this field importance overnight. This had two immediate and positive results: (1) serious observers were more willing to look at the long-term effects of nanotechnology, and (2) private funders started to invest their own money in addition to the tax dollars. Both groups of people were stimulated by the NNI funding event.

It's clear that the same thing needs to happen in MNT. In the U.S., a technical field is not taken truly seriously if the federal government does not invest. The thinking seems to be that the U.S. government spends so much money on R&D that anything even remotely valuable is being funded—and therefore, if a field appears to be unfunded, it must not be real.

Whether you as a Foresight member are primarily in favor of MNT to obtain the various positive applications (medical, environmental, space, etc.), or primarily concerned about avoiding abuses, your interests will not be addressed to any depth in the U.S. until MNT research receives public funding.

We can fix this problem. See the article on legislative action by Tim Kyger, Foresight's Washington representative, elsewhere in this issue. We know that, of those members of the public who are aware of the issue, a majority want MNT—and they pay taxes and vote. It's just a matter of bringing these views to the attention of our elected representatives. You can help now by donating to this project, and help later by responding to our calls to make your views known to your representatives.

    Foresight's role needs to change. If we want a balanced discussion, the positive uses of MNT need a lot more emphasis.    

A long-shot strategy—that might both stimulate a U.S. project and, ideally, an international one—would be an announcement by a non-U.S. government or company that they are actively pursuing MNT in particular, not just nanotechnology in general. As Foresight's president, I put some effort into this in recent talks to key individuals in the European Union and in France. It's unlikely that either the EU or France will step up to this in time: more likely would be a program in a nation such as China or Israel, countries with a higher level of technological ambition and a lower level of interminable technology-impact debate. But who knows, the seed was planted—we will see.

Self-replication to be de-emphasized

Early writing on MNT highlighted one specific technical possibility: building molecular machine systems that could make copies of themselves. It was pointed out that this ability would be extremely powerful in being able to make large numbers of systems, and in getting costs down.

This is true, but the self-replication concept has generated an amazing amount of heat and confusion, especially as attention has shifted to nanotechnology policy. Foresight Chairman Eric Drexler was asked to provide some clarification:

Self-replicating nanomachines (SRNs) —especially as they are commonly understood (tiny, autonomous, self-replicating devices analogous to living things) —are not necessary for molecular manufacturing and should be de-emphasized as a goal. Why is this a sensible position?

SRNs are not necessary: Macroscopic manufacturing systems expand their output by using existing capital goods to produce more capital goods without building self-replicating machines on the macroscale; likewise, self-replicating machines are not necessary on the nanoscale.

SRNs should be de-emphasized as a goal for several reasons:

  1. There has (oddly) been a persistent resistance to the idea that SRNs are possible; it is preferable to avoid advocating goals seen as impossible.
  2. A shallow understanding of SRNs suggests that they are by nature dangerous; it is preferable to avoid advocating goals seen as dangerous.
  3. SRNs as commonly understood play no role in current nanofactory-based concepts of molecular manufacturing.

What related messages do make sense?

Desktop nanofactories will be general purpose manufacturing systems. They can be inexpensive because they can (for example) be used to make parts that snap together to make more nanofactories.

A set of blacksmith's tools can be used to build a set of blacksmith's tools, but we don't call them self-replicating. Likewise, not all nanotools that can be used to build more nanotools should be termed self-replicating. SRNs are possible, but they won't be the simplest or most efficient tools for making other products.

Studies of self-replicating systems and their control are valuable and appropriate: SRNs (not necessarily as commonly understood!) are an important potential application of the technologies that will enable molecular manufacturing. They may have genuine uses, and could certainly be a threat. (Thus, the Sherman language [in the 2003 House nanotechnology bill] is still valuable and appropriate.)

Based on this thinking, you may see Foresight talking more about desktop nanofactories and parallelism, and less about self-replication as a goal.

Our ever-evolving terminology

In the early days of Foresight we were able to describe our ideas for atomically-precise molecular machine systems and their products as 'nanotechnology'. Today a Google search will show that, while our meaning still dominates, plenty of webpages use a more generic definition. It's confusing to everyone.

Over the years we've also used the terms molecular nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing, which are much more often used as we would prefer—but not exclusively.

Just recently we've been using the term MNT, with the new definition of "molecular, mature, or molecular-manufacturing-based nanotechnology." Also useful is the phrase molecular machine systems.

Foresight Chairman Eric Drexler has also suggested zettatechnology, in which zetta means 1021, referring to the typical number of distinct designed parts in a product made by the systems we envision. This term should be used to refer to the implemented technology and its products, rather than to intermediate steps on the pathway.

Our man in Washington

When it became clear that Foresight could have some impact on the new U.S. nanotechnology bill, I turned for advice to an old friend, Tim Kyger, whom both I and the entire Foresight board of directors had known for many years, since our days as young activists advocating space development and settlement. Tim had served as a staffer on both the House and Senate sides and had worked directly with the relevant science committees. I knew his input would be invaluable.

After getting his advice, we swapped personal news and hung up. Within a few minutes a key fact hit me: Tim was available, right now, to go to Washington on our behalf—if we moved fast, before he could accept another offer.

We moved fast. Tim was our DC rep from July through November, and did a super job. We are now raising the funds to support a DC rep for 2004. If you can help, donate online or give us a call at +1-650-917-1122.

Christine L. Peterson is Foresight's President. You can email her at

Foresight Update 53 - Table of Contents

Foresight Goes to Washington

Legislative action for the Feynman vision of nanotechnology

by Tim Kyger

As readers of Foresight Update know, there is 'plenty of room at the bottom.' And that's where, in the middle of 2003, Foresight found itself as it became involved in the legislative process for the first time.

The specific issues Foresight has involved itself with revolve around the federal government's National Nanotechnology Initiative, or "NNI." The NNI was started by then-President Clinton in 1999 due to the strong advocacy of Clinton's science advisor, Dr. Neal Lane. Dr. Lane had become familiar with "the Feynman vision" of molecular nanotechnology, and of the benefits MNT could bring to human society. He was able to successfully communicate the nature of these benefits and an understanding of the Feynman vision and MNT to President Clinton, as evidenced by the Clinton Administration's embrace of a funding program for research and development of nanotechnology—the NNI.

The NNI was set up as a virtual government administration, coordinating nanotechnology research and development activities across a multitude of federal government agencies. This year, the NNI will oversee the spending of roughly $800 million.

But not a penny of these Federal funds will be spent on advancing development of the Feynman vision, and not a penny has been spent to date either. (More on this below.)

Congress has had under consideration, in years past, many nanotechnology policy bills that would authorize the existence of the NNI in law (after the fact, of course). But this year it appears as if a nanotechnology policy act will finally actually be passed and be sent to the desk of the President for signature into law.

The two bills in question in the Congress this time around are H.R. 766, the House of Representative's "Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003," and S. 189, the Senate's "21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act." Both bills were introduced in Congress early in 2003, and both rapidly had hearings held in the House and in the Senate to discuss their provisions and to discuss nanotechnology and MNT. Christine Peterson, Foresight's President, was asked to testify before one of these hearings, a hearing before the full House Science Committee held on April 9, 2003 (see Update 52).

The full House passed H.R. 766, sending it to the Senate for its consideration on May 7 by a vote of 405 to 19. The companion Senate bill, S. 189, in comparison had in the middle of June only just been voted on and passed by the Senate Commerce Committee (where it had originated). This is where things stood in mid-July when Foresight became fully involved in trying to shape the final legislation that would be sent to the President.

H.R. 766 had several major provisions of interest to Foresight. Representative Brad Sherman (D-CA27), as many Foresight members know, became so interested in the subject of MNT that he decided to attend and speak at Foresight's Senior Associates Gathering last May. As a direct result of this meeting and of his discussions with Foresight leadership and members, he authored amendments to H.R. 766 which were adopted and became Sections 8(a) and 8 (c). Congressman David Wu (D-OR1) also authored an amendment to H.R. 766, which was also adopted; this became Section 8(b). Foresight wanted Section 8 to be adopted in the final bill text that would be negotiated and agreed to between the House and the Senate.

Section 8 (among other things) called for a study by the National Academy of Sciences that would assess the scientific feasibility of MNT, helping to end this particular "meme war"—clearly a very important legislative provision in advancing Foresight's goals. Additionally, Foresight wished to influence what the bill would put into law as the definition of nanotechnology, so that this definition as explicitly as possible contained the meme of MNT.

H.R. 766, having been passed by the full House, was beyond any change by the time Foresight began its work in mid-July. S. 189, by comparison, was still capable of being changed. And this was the actual plan on the part of those in the Senate working on S. 189. Their plan was for Senate staff of both parties to meet with their opposite numbers in the House to negotiate a mutually agreed-upon text between H.R. 766 and S. 189. They would arrive at this common text and then take up S. 189 on the floor of the Senate, amend it with this agreed-upon text, and then pass the amended-in-the-Senate S. 189 by "UC" or unanimous consent and send it back to the House for passage in this amended form.

    But not a penny of these Federal funds will be spent on advancing development of the Feynman vision, and not a penny has been spent to date either.    

That has indeed been occurring since the beginning of September. Negotiations have arrived at a common bill text between the House, the Senate, both parties (the Republicans and Democrats), and the Administration in the guise of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Foresight's work to shape the text of this final bill has borne fruit. The two legislative provisions Foresight wished to be part of the final bill are in the final negotiated text. They are:

Section 5(b) STUDY ON MOLECULAR SELF-ASSEMBLY.—As part of the first triennial review conducted in accordance with Subsection (a), the National Research Council shall conduct a one-time study to determine the technical feasibility of molecular self-assembly for the manufacture of materials and devices at the molecular scale.

Section 10 Definitions, Subsection (2) NANOTECHNOLOGY.—The term—''nanotechnology'' means the science and technology that will enable one to understand, measure, manipulate, and manufacture at the atomic, molecular, and supramolecular levels, aimed at creating materials, devices, and systems with fundamentally new molecular organization, properties, and functions.

Senate passage took only about five minutes, with the two Senators who were S. 189's managers (Senator Wyden D-OR and Senator Allen R-VA) on the floor making statements about the bill, and then moving that S. 189 be amended by a Manager's Amendment that replaces everything in the bill ("an amendment in the nature of a substitute") with the negotiated, agreed upon text. They then moved that by unanimous consent S. 189 as amended be passed and sent back to the House. No objection was heard, and therefore the bill was passed, and the Senate moved on to other business. If you blinked you missed it.

The House then re-passed the bill in the form that had been so painfully negotiated. This was actually quite easy, as the House has expedited rules for handling such situations. S. 189 as amended by the Senate was passed under "suspension of the rules." It then went to the desk of the President, where it was signed into law.

By early 2004, then, the NNI will be established in law. Where does this leave the Feynman vision?

In February 2000, the NNI established its goals. "The following Grand Challenges have been identified as essential for the advancement of the field: nanostructured materials "by design"; nanoelectronics, optoelectronics and magnetics; advanced healthcare, therapeutics and diagnostics; nanoscale processes for environmental improvement; efficient energy conversion and storage; microcraft space exploration and industrialization; bio-nanosensors for communicable disease and biological threat detection; economical and safe transportation, and national security." Not a lot of Feynman or MNT in these goals, is there? And yet the Federal government has spent roughly $2 billion to date on pursuing them.

It's time for the NNI to begin to spend a few dollars from its $800 million-a-year budget (authorized to increase to $995 million a year by 2008) on figuring out how to pursue the Feynman vision. Luckily the work that Foresight has done in 2003 in shaping H.R. 766 and S. 189 will enable Foresight in 2004 to help to revise the NNI's goal set, and thus help to move the NNI toward work that actually does precursor research leading to MNT. There are many "hooks" in H.R. 766/S. 189 that will enable Foresight in 2004 to shape and influence the selection of what goals the NNI will and must pursue.

The battle over the Feynman vision has, until now, been limited to a series of small skirmishes. But time and events have moved onward. In 2004, Foresight will need to hit the memetic D-Day beach. It's time to make our vision of MNT "mainstream." Strap on your helmets everyone. We're going in to save Private Feynman!

Tim B. Kyger was Foresight's Washington Representative, July-November 2003.

For more on what the new law means for MNT:

The change in wording in the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act to call for a study of "molecular self-assembly" instead of "molecular manufacturing" is widely seen as a victory for those opposed to studying molecular manufacturing (see the Media Watch column in this issue). For more discussion, see:

Foresight Update 53 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5

From Foresight Update 53, originally published 15 January 2004.

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