The Foresight Institute’s Founding Vision

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Foresight was founded in 1986 on a vision of the emerging field of nanotechnology in which current capabilities in several areas of science and technology lead eventually to fabrication of complex products with atom-by-atom control of the manufacturing process. Foresight’s mission and activities have evolved from this founding vision to include research on other technologies of fundamental importance for the future of humanity, e.g. artificial intelligence. To understand Foresight’s beginnings, this section gives an overview of Engines of Creation, the book that led to the founding of Foresight Institute. 

Engines of Creation by K. Eric Drexler

The Foresight Institute was founded on a brilliant and vivid study of the future of technology published in 1986 and written by a student at MIT. K Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology has been exceptionally influential because it not only presents an exciting exposition of an emerging technology, but it places it in the context of how we can think about technologies that have not yet been developed, and how we can prepare to avoid the perils that the technology may bring as well as exploit the opportunities that it will present. For these reasons it remains relevant after 30 years of phenomenal progress in the underlying science and technology. The themes of Engines of Creation provided the foundations for Foresight’s mission and initial activities. Drexler was a co-founder of Foresight, although he no longer has any affiliation with Foresight.

A free HTML version of Engines of Creation is available at Drexler’s web site. Drexler also provides a link to the free 20th anniversary e-book edition with follow-on papers and publications. Engines of Creation was a work of popular science. In 1992 Drexler followed it up with a technical book Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation developed from his MIT PhD thesis. Drexler brought his view of the coming era of nanotechnology up to date in his latest book Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization, published in 2013.

The Feynman vision – “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom”

The core idea of Drexler’s vision of nanotechnology—that a very wide range of technological goals could be accomplished if we could make things by placing the atoms where we want them, and that the laws of physics do not forbid manufacturing to atomic precision—were first elucidated by Richard Feynman in 1959 in a visionary talk “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom“. The word “nanotechnology” was first used to label Feynman’s vision in EOC. In fact, the 20th anniversary e-book edition of EOC reprints Feynman’s 1959 talk as a Prelude to EOC. To honor Feynman’s pioneering contribution, Foresight established in 1993 the Foresight Feynman Prizes in nanotechnology to be given each year to researchers whose recent work have most advanced the achievement of Feynman’s goal for nanotechnology: the construction of atomically-precise products through the use of molecular machine systems. Foresight Institute established the Feynman Grand Prize in 1996 to motivate scientists and engineers to design and construct a functioning nanoscale robotic arm with specified performance characteristics.

Foundations, Possibilities, and Strategies

Drexler structured his vision of nanotechnology as a technological revolution in three parts, each of which remains a focus of Foresight’s mission and activities.

The Foundations

The ability to arrange atoms as the foundation of technology; the molecular machinery of life; the evolution of complexity; predicting and projecting in science and engineering. More …

Profiles of the Possible

Abundance, intelligence, space, healing, long life, reaching the future, limits. More …

Dangers and Hopes

Danger, survival strategies, finding facts, networking knowledge, a future of diversity. More …

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