The Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology is awarded. From left to right, Ted Kaehler, Recipient Charles Musgrave, his research advisor Prof. William Goddard III, and Marc Arnold.
Perhaps the most significant result of last year’s nanotechnology conference is that the attendees became inspired by the idea of the Foresight Institute sponsoring a prize for research work leading to nanotechnology. Thanks to the efforts of many volunteers, one short year later–at our next conference–the first Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology was awarded to the “researcher whose recent work has most advanced the development of molecular nanotechnology.” The prize is named after Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, who looked in the direction of nanotechnology as early as 1959.
This year’s winner is Charles Musgrave, a Ph.D. candidate in chemistry at the California Institute of Technology, for his work on modeling a hydrogen abstraction tool useful in nanotechnology. The work was done at the Materials & Molecular Simulation Center under the supervision of Prof. William A. Goddard III.
Foresight members Marc Arnold and Ted Kaehler, who played an active role in both founding the prize and in funding it, made the presentation. Attendees at the October 14 prize ceremony cheered Musgrave, and then cheered again when it was announced that one of this year’s judges, Kary Mullis, had that morning received an award of his own: the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Targeted at young researchers in order to encourage their entry into the field, the $5000 Feynman Prize was awarded based on submission of an approved thesis or dissertation (bachelor’s, master’s, or Ph.D.), an article published in a refereed journal, or a paper approved for publication in a refereed journal. Submissions were received from the US, Japan, Russia, and Europe.
To stimulate the broadest range of submissions possible on a fixed budget, prize organizers made use of publicity over the Internet as well as more traditional methods, including posters sent to labs thought to be likely locations for candidates. Use of the Internet is particularly credited with stimulating submissions from outside the US.
The Selection Committee for the 1993 Prize were: Masakazu Aono, Aono Atomcraft Project; Chief Scientist, RIKEN, Japan; Robert Birge, Syracuse University professor, chemistry and molecular electronics; K. Eric Drexler, Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Molecular Manufacturing and Chairman, Foresight Institute; Stig Hagstrom, Chancellor of the Swedish University system; Tracy Handel, Du Pont, protein science; Arthur Kantrowitz, Dartmouth College, professor, engineering, and Advisor, Foresight Institute; Ralph Merkle, Computational Nanotechnology Project, Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, and Advisor, Institute for Molecular Manufacturing; Marvin Minsky, MIT Media Lab professor, and Advisor, Foresight Institute; Kary Mullis, inventor of PCR method in molecular genetics and Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry; Jane Richardson, Duke University, professor, protein science; Hiroyuki Sasabe, Head of Laboratory for Nano-Photonics Materials, RIKEN Institute, Japan.
Submissions were encouraged from research areas considered relevant to molecular nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing, including but not limited to: proximal probes (e.g. STM, AFM), protein engineering, supramolecular chemistry, computational chemistry and molecular modeling, natural molecular machines (e.g. flagellar motor, ribosome), and molecular machine design.
Both experimental and theoretical work were eligible. Special consideration was given to submissions clearly leading toward the construction of a general-purpose molecular assembler. Applicants wishing further information on the field of the prize were referred to the book Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation (Wiley Interscience, 1992).
This year’s winner, the soon-to-be Dr. Musgrave, will be completing his Caltech program shortly and is interested in discussing nanotechnology-relevant research . [Editor’s note, 1999: Charles B. Musgrave is currently in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Stanford: http://chemeng.stanford.edu/html/musgrave.html]
Donations for use in the next Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology are now being accepted by the Foresight Institute.
Rice University in Houston has announced plans to build a nanotechnology research and teaching laboratory. According to Chemical & Engineering News, the program will coordinate the ongoing research of about 25% of the Rice faculty in six departments — including chemistry, physics, biochemistry, and chemical engineering — for a total of fifty researchers. Prof. Richard Smalley, the chemist famous in the nanotechnology community for his discovery of buckminsterfullerene (“buckyballs”), will play a major role in the new program.
From an article in the Houston Post, it appears that Prof. Smalley is indeed using the term nanotechnology as we in the Foresight Institute do. The article credits Smalley with these views: “Nanotechnology, the science of building things atom by atom, is where much of the future in science and engineering lies: Nanotechnology could be used to build materials a hundred times stronger than steel, cables that are lighter and stronger and can carry more electrical current over greater lengths, and batteries that are smaller, lighter, environmentally safer, and that can store much more energy and be recharged faster. It could also be used in medicine to produce enzymes in cells to fight off an HIV virus.”
“Much if not the most important technology in the 21st century will be nanobased technology,” according to Prof. Smalley, winner of the prestigious Welch Prize in chemistry.
C&E News describes the program as “creating materials and machines at the atomic and molecular levels.”
It is reported that the new lab will perform undergraduate teaching as well as graduate level training and research. This would be the first undergraduate facility for molecular nanotechnology in the US and possibly in the world.
For foresight into the future, ancient Greek society relied upon the oracle at Delphi, random soothsayers, and the occasional cranky denunciation of current trends from philosophers such as Plato. Contemporary society relies upon a panoply of soothsayers, formal and informal, from official government agencies such as the Office of Technology Assessment, to quasi-formal institutions such as the RAND Corporation, various academic futurists, and a variety of freelance authors and journalists. As students of information theory know that without effective feedback, such theorizing can never rise above random speculation. For that reason, one of the most interesting varieties of predictor is the financial newsletter writer. Unlike many futurists, these analysts must not only predict general trends, but, to be useful to the customer, link these general trends to specific behaviors of financial and industrial sectors, and furthermore to predictions of behavior of specific markets or companies. Their subscribers, who typically pay at least a hundred dollars per year for subscriptions, and often stake tens of thousands on the strength of the analysis, provide vigorous feedback in the event of mistaken prognostication. Such analysts often have a more realistic outlook than government or academic analysts. They tend to follow the flow of money in any situation, which is usually the most reliable indication of underlying realities. Their experience in seeing endless scams and cons gives them a healthy skepticism regarding claims of all sorts. No reputable financial newsletter writer, for example, would have accepted the industrial output figures of Ceaucescu’s Rumania at face value, as did Laura Tyson (current Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers) in her academic work.
Of these analysts, one of the most interesting is Douglas R. Casey, author of several books on the topic and publisher of an investment newsletter, “Crisis Investing”. Casey is interesting for several reasons: he has traveled very widely, including unpopular destinations, and has a correspondingly international viewpoint; he mixes a broad range of social and political observations with his financial discussions; and is willing to follow the logic of his arguments to their conclusions even when the result is well outside the parameters of conventional wisdom. He has always regarded totalitarians with the utter contempt they so well deserve, unlike many academics who have fawned over various tyrants throughout this century. His current book, Crisis Investing for the Rest of the ’90s (A Birch Lane Press Book, Carol Publishing Group, New York, 1993) is of particular interest as Casey addresses the effects of upcoming technologies on the economy and society. In Chapter 35 of the book, “An Unlimited Future”, Casey gives a concise and accurate overview of nanotechnology, which he describes as being probably the next stage of technology.
The growing awareness of nanotechnology into the community of financial prognosticators is a significant development in the public’s awareness of the field. (Nanotechnology was also raised as a possibility in James Dale Davidson’s Blood in the Streets) Their readership constitutes an active and intelligent sector of society accustomed to thinking critically about trends, but which might not encounter a discussion of nanotechnology for some time in their other reading. These discussions may do more good in terms of leading people to take the possibility of nanotechnology seriously than many other circles of futurist thought. In addition, as precursor work on nanotechnology accelerates, commercial spin-offs may begin to emerge: the prospect of nanotechnology-related businesses will enhance the interest of the investment community further, while the prior knowledge of nanotechnology due to exposure through books such as Casey’s will prepare that community to evaluate such companies as investment prospects.
Readers of Foresight Update will not learn anything new about nanotechnology from Casey’s book–the discussion there is at an introductory level. The bulk of the book is devoted to a discussion of financial trends over the remainder of the decade, and includes much specific discussion of personal investment strategies for that time. Casey holds that the financial environment will be turbulent throughout this period. He predicts a “Greater Depression” as a culmination of long-term trends in government fiscal practices, industrial transition, and other developments, followed eventually by an “Unlimited Future” including nanotechnology. His financial advice is predicated on an expectation of such developments. It is an interesting, entertaining and well-written book on such topics, and his predictions are buttressed with substantial documentation. An oversight was the lack of co-author credit for Unbounding the Future due to Chris Peterson and Gayle Pergamit. In addition, it would have been helpful to give the Foresight Institute address in the information sources section at the back of the book. One hopes that these points will be taken care of in subsequent editions.
Readers with any interest in the subject of Crisis Investing for the Rest of the ’90s will find this an enjoyable and thought-provoking read.
430 pages, cloth-bound, index, numerous graphs and charts, and a useful guide to further information in the back.
Order Crisis Investing for the Rest of the ’90s hardback
Order Crisis Investing for the Rest of the ’90s paperback
James C. Bennett is the cofounder of the American Rocket Co. and president of the Center for Constitutional Issues in Technology.
Earlier this year I spent two months with the National Science Foundation’s Summer Institute in Japan. I found that while Japan has a long term focus on developing micro- and nanoscale technology, they do not yet have a commitment to developing molecular manufacturing per se.
The Japanese research community is composed of many disparate parts, and Japanese research in molecular nanotechnology reflects this. The Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) has a research arm, the Agency of Industrial Science and Technology (AIST). AIST was reorganized last year. Much of the reorganization was a merger of similar research institutes, but the reorganization also included the formation of a new institute, the National Institute for Advanced Interdisciplinary Research (NAIR).
NAIR currently has three efforts started. The first is “Atom Technology,” which aims at developing technologies for manipulating individual atoms and molecules. While in Japan I met with Dr. Hiroshi Tokumoto, a senior researcher on this project.
The second NAIR project is on “Cluster Science,” which is focused on experimentally learning the properties of lumps of less than 1000 atoms or molecules.
The third group is looking at “Bionic Design,” which, based on analogy with how living bodies operate, hopes “to establish principles for design and production of molecular machine systems which have the…abilities of self-assembly, self-repair and functional adaptation to the environment.” NAIR may be the perfect organizational venue within Japan to eventually develop molecular nanotechnology.
The Science and Technology Agency of Japan (STA) is a ministry-level organization reporting directly to the Prime Minister. It is much smaller than AIST, but closer to the political center. STA has five direct research institutes and seven “Public Corporations” under it. One of these corporations is the Research Development Corporation of Japan (JRDC).
JRDC runs several Exploratory Research for Advanced Technology (ERATO) projects. These are meant to be very “un-Japanese” in their design, to promote creativity, and to produce faster results closer to the leading edges of technology. ERATO projects last for five years, independent of their results. They are (1) led by and named for researchers who showed excellence when young; (2) staffed by young researchers on loan; and (3) generally follow novel research paths.
I worked at an ERATO project, the Nagayama Protein Array. Other ERATO projects which appear to be at least somewhat relevant to molecular nanotechnology are Kawachi Millibioflight, Itaya Electrochemiscopy, Yabagida Biomotron, Yoshimura Pi-Electron Materials, Noyori Molecular Catalysis, Kimura Metamelt, Shinkai Chemirecognition, and Aono Atomcraft.
I visited Dr. Aono at the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research (RIKEN). RIKEN is an extremely prestigious research organization in Japan, and a public corporation under the STA. Researchers there have a great deal of money and freedom. RIKEN has chemistry and biotechnology researchers with the skill necessary to make significant progress in molecular nanotechnology.
Much research at RIKEN could bear on molecular nanotechnology, especially their Frontier Research Program, but none is yet focused on that precise goal. While there, I was able to meet Dr. Masahiko Hara, a leading researcher in the Frontier Research Program.
Dr. Seishi Kudo worked on the now-completed Hotani Molecular Dynamics Assembly ERATO project, which investigated flagellar rotary motors. It was quite exciting watching bacteria actually swim around under flagellar power, and actually being able to see flagella operating.
Research in Japan includes work at various universities. The universities of Kyoto and Tokyo are well regarded. Since the universities are under the Ministry of Education, there is not as much cooperation between the universities and AIST or STA. I did manage, however, to visit Prof. Masayuki Nakao and Dr. Larry Nagahara at Tokyo University.
I was invited along to a tour of the Hitachi Mechanical Engineering Research Laboratory. After asking about work related to molecular nanotechnology, I was able to arrange a visit to the Hitachi Advanced Research Laboratory. There I was hosted by Dr. Tsuyoshi Uda, and met Dr. Yasuo Wada, who had just published a paper on the theoretical operation of single-atom wires, and who suggested using these wires in “atomic wire electromechanical relays,” where a single atom is the switching element. His next major research goal is to build single atom wires, using scanning probe devices, and to test their electrical properties. He hopes to eventually build logic circuits out of single-atom wide wires.
One comment I kept hearing in Japan was that molecular nanotechnology will be taken seriously once someone succeeds in actually building one of the components that Drexler and other have modeled. The analogy used was that researchers began taking micromachinery seriously after the first micromotor was demonstrated.
This is understandable, but unwise. It is understandable, because many new technical ideas run into real world implementation difficulties. Thus, a physical demonstration is a good indicator that applicable results are approaching, and thus is a plausible milestone at which to increase one’s commitment to a new idea. As a practical matter, I suspect that many researchers will hold back until there is a physical demonstration of a molecular mechanical component, and then they will jump in.
This is an unwise strategy, however, in part because molecular nanotechnology has both extreme importance, and difficult timing issues. Events may prove that the time from the demonstration of the first “Drexler-style” molecular component and large scale applicability will be too short for research organizations to adequately respond to. It may be crucial to begin work before the first demonstration if a scenario of massive design-ahead combined with an assembler breakthrough occurs.
The strategy of waiting for first demonstration to begin research is also unwise because it seems so widespread. Anyone who works on molecular nanotechnology early will gain a tremendous lead, due to the lack of competition. Once the “bandwagon” starts, even a small amount of prior work will carry large relative weight. Thus, a small early research project is a low cost bet with a very high potential payoff.
Another implication of this mindset is that if today’s theoreticians were to design a component of some arguable relationship to molecular nanotechnology, specifically so that it could easily be demonstrated, then that demonstration could have a substantial impact well in excess of its technical merit.
Finally, the NSF Summer Institute in Japan is an excellent program. Any US resident who is a Ph.D. student should consider applying. To do so, send a message to [email protected], and request an application.
Tom McKendree is a Ph.D. candidate at USC in the Industrial and Systems Engineering Department. He is also president of the Molecular Manufacturing Shortcut Group, a special interest chapter of the National Space Society.
I teach biology at the Metropolitan State College of Denver (MSCD), a four-year urban institution in Colorado. Most of our biology majors plan to continue on to professional or graduate programs (such as physical therapy, medical or nursing). A strong background in the basic sciences is a necessity for these post-graduate programs. Although we are able to deliver this background to the student, I’ve noticed a “technological gap” between what we teach and what goes on in the real world. We usually teach science, not technology, and we provide little distinction between the two topics. We seldom discuss the impact of technology, except as a side effect of science.
I’ve talked with students about their plans for their careers and most seem to exhibit a naive view about the future. This view develops from a straight-line extrapolation of present-day trends. Many do not understand the idea of exponential change and its effects on the future development of technology. Traditional biology college courses deal primarily with events of the distant or recent past and are rarely state-of-the-art. Speculation about future is infrequent, which is ironic considering that the students professional life is some 3-5 years in the future. This inability to critically analyze possible future careers (indeed even to consider the impact of technology on their future careers) may lead to “future shock” and worse (from the student’s perspective), unemployment.
Last year I developed a course for biology majors titled “Topics in Advances in Biology” that may address some of these problems. It covered a wide variety of subjects that shared the common theme of the impact of high technology and new scientific developments on biology. Although I didn’t discuss nanotechnology until the last quarter of the term, I did use early chapters of Engines of Creation as the basis for an introduction of to the course. For instance; we discussed the failure of experts to anticipate changes within their own fields due to the lack of interdisciplinary study; we examined the distinction between science and technology; and we examined the concept of exponential change. I wanted to demonstrate in the introduction that we don’t know it all and that there is ample room for technological development even within our current limited scientific knowledge. This gave the students a chance to critically analyze why experts can be wrong and allowed the students to start thinking more creatively.
During the remainder of the course, I segued from traditional into advanced topics to reduce “future shock.” For example, most of my students have already had a course in anatomy and physiology. I continued the discussion of bone, vestibular, immunological and cardiovascular physiology with an examination of the effects of hypo gravity and long duration space flights on these systems. The transition from traditional physiology to space physiology enabled the students to ease into the new subject matter. I followed this basic plan throughout the course, which allowed me to introduce a variety of subjects such as; putative alien biochemistry, chaos, genetic algorithms, neural nets, artificial life, and lastly nanotechnology.
Discussion of the preceding topics served to set the foundation to introduce nanotechnology. I have often talked about nanotechnology “cold” to students and colleagues. The response is similar, I’m sure, to what others have experienced; bewildered silence or startled acceptance. It concerns me that many in the academic community often dismiss the idea because of its dramatic implications or accept it without critical analysis. We can mitigate the extreme response to nanotechnology by first exposing students to other advanced technologies. The students are then more aware of the changes generated by advancing technologies and scientific developments and are better able to evaluate possible consequences.
The student’s major concerns and questions about nanotechnology varied. For example: How will nanotechnology affect job security and the national economy? Will we lose control over the technology leading to economic and military conflicts? and is it possible that we are developing successors to our own species, leading to our own extinction? A few students also exhibited an inherent “distrust” of nanotechnology. As biology students, they are quite aware (in great detail) of the effects of the mishandling of 20th century bulk technology and the consequent effects on our global environment. It is important to give students an opportunity to appreciate the enormous qualitative difference between nanotechnology and bulk technology. Otherwise, they may just view nanotechnology as “just another technological fix” and dismiss it out-of-hand.
Although the students did have some concerns the overall response to nanotechnology was quite favorable. Most felt it was technically possible or even inevitable, although there was some feeling that it might not be socially or politically possible. Several students were well aware that the technology could lead to change on a monumental scale. They were very interested in the sort of change that might occur in the field of biology, such as in medicine or environmental science. However, the level of critical analysis of the subject was limited since most of the students did not have the necessary technical expertise. Also, student analysis did not consider the overall implications of nanotechnology beyond the items discussed.
The course achieved, for the most part, its goal of giving students a peek at what might happen in the not-so-distant future and a chance to make some reasoned guesses about the direction their own life might take. Several students were surprised and amazed at the possibilities and have begun to appreciate the complexities that the future holds. Several students continue to pursue nanotechnology issues through an on-campus discussion group and personal study.
I believe nanotechnology will play a major role in the future development of our society and the students we are educating now may be the prime movers in that development. With that in mind, I continue to expand the course and hope to include additional material from Engines, Nanosystems and any other sources I can find. Naturally, the course is in constant change, which is just as well, considering that change is what the course is all about.
From Foresight Update 17, originally published 15 December 1993.