Foresight Update 1
A publication of the Foresight Institute
The ideas behind the Foresight Institute grew up alongside the
ideas in Engines of Creation.
The need for an organization was obvious: If we face great
challenges as a civilization, shouldn't we organize in some way
to meet them? In the coming months and years, the approach of
nanotechnology and artificial intelligence will raise a host of
issues, with technical, economic, political, and ethical
dimensions. We will need networks of informed individuals and
forums for discussion. We will need organizations able to
influence public policy, including international policy.
How to proceed was less obvious. Organizations can take many
forms, and our experience in other broad, technology-oriented
organizations suggested many pitfalls. But this experience also
suggested some promising approaches, as described in two essays,
the "Postscript to Engines of Creation" and "What
is the Foresight Institute?"
What has been done so far? We began by giving readers of Engines
a way to get in touch, listing a mailing address for the planned
Foresight Institute. Publication of the book led to a steady flow
The Foresight Institute now has legal existence, an outline of
its purpose and strategy, a small, active core group, a mailing
list of several hundred interested persons, and seed funding for
startup expenses. Its chief asset, however, is a body of
information and a set of concerns of vital interest to people.
What we make of this beginning will, in large measure, depend on
the effort, skills, and contributions of a community of people
that has just begun to form. We invite you to join us.
Japan is preparing to launch a major research initiative in a
range of fields that overlap with artificial intelligence and
nanotechnology. This effort, tentatively called the Human
Frontier Science Program, is expected to span 20 years and to
cost some $6 billion.
A major focus is development of the "sixth generation
computer": a system achieving true intelligence through
neural-style computation. Research in this field today centers on
the use of conventional, semiconductor-based integrated circuits,
but the Japanese effort also aims to develop molecular
electronics. This will entail the design and construction of
complex molecular systems, providing both the tools and the
motivation for developing molecular assemblers and
In connection with this and other goals, the Human Frontier
Science Program will investigate a wide range of biological
phenomena. The development of neural-style computers will involve
extensive studies of the brain and its information-processing
methods. More general forms of biological behavior and
self-regulation will also be subjects for research.
Japan's Institute of Physical and Chemical Research (Riken) has
initiated a related "frontier research program" in
molecular electronics, bioelectronics, and quantum electronics,
as well as in biological homeostasis and aging. The direction of
this research resembles that of the Human Frontier Science
Program, and is reported to include investigation of the creation
of an "artificial brain." Its emphasis on molecular and
biomolecular devices also moves it in the direction of
Further, the Research Development Corporation of Japan is
presently conducting a five-year "Nano-mechanism
Project," aimed at studying the "physical actions and
mechanical properties of material in the nanometer region,"
which "should also provide the basis for the development of
a new field, which might be called 'nano-engineering.'"
Despite the tantalizing name of this effort, a two-page
description in a recent RDCJ publication leaves its relationship
to assemblers and nanotechnology unclear. Its emphasis is clearly
on small-scale bulk processes. Applications discussed include
semiconductor processing and fabrication of x-ray optics.
Submicron artifacts have, of course, been around for a long time:
thin films, fine scratches, synthetic molecules, and so forth all
fit the description. Real nanotechnology will involve molecular
assemblers able to build objects to complex, atomic
specifications--including other assemblers. This is where the
A document from Japan's Ministry of International Trade and
Industry, "Suggested Investigations in the Human Frontier
Science Program" (November 1987) suggests a serious interest
in studying and developing molecular machines. It calls for
"prediction of tertiary protein structures. . . to predict
the functional change due to the structural modification,"
"investigations of the functions of movement at the
molecular level, molecular assembly level, and tissue
level," and "development of artificial molecular
assembly technique based on the mechanism of biomolecules."
It notes that "techniques to control the shapes and the
structures of biomaterials of the functional molecular
aggregates, and the techniques to synthesize these materials by
controlling one-, two- and three-dimensional molecular
arrangements are highly required." While mixed in with many
other goals, the understanding, design, and synthesis of
molecular machines stands out as a major theme of the Human
Frontier Science Program.
The Institute (a news supplement to the IEEE
Spectrum) reports that a delegation from Japan's Ministry
of International Trade and Industry (MITI) visited Washington in
spring 1986 to discuss the Human Frontier Science Program. The
Economist had anticipated that the seven-nation summit in
Tokyo in May 1986 would include discussion of plans to make this
program an international research effort. The Institute reports
that these formal talks did not occur, apparently because
American and European leaders were preoccupied with terrorism and
the accident at Chernobyl.
In late 1986 another party of Japanese officials visited
Washington to propose forming an international panel of
scientists to help plan the program. They propose a panel
including three members from the U.S., and two from each other
Riken's smaller "frontier research program" gives some
indication of Japan's seriousness regarding international
cooperation. One third of the scientists involved are to be from
outside Japan. Kevin Ulmer of the Center for Advanced Research in
Biotechnology (affiliated with the U.S. National Bureau of
Standards) has been invited to head the bioelectronics effort.
A February 1987 MITI document, titled "Outline of the Human
Frontier Science Program: tentative plan," states that
"Learning from the experiences of our predecessors as we
meet new challenges, we should internationalize science and
technology by promoting the international exchange of researchers
and their findings, work together to train young researchers to
lead the next generation, and reinforce basic research on a
global level. . . .This will open Japan's research and
development system to the world and promote the
internationalization of Japan itself."
How will we respond? The Institute states that observers agree
"that the Japanese are eager for international cooperation
on the Human Frontier Science Program." But it quotes Brian
Gains, a Japan-watcher at the University of Calgary in Alberta,
Canada, as saying that "The fifth generation [computer
project] was intended to be an international program, but it
caused a defensive reaction around the world." Decisions
made with respect to the Human Frontier Science Program could
shape the course of international cooperation--or competition--in
For further reports on nanotechnology in Japan, see:
Interest in nanotechnology has spilled over from academia and
industry into the popular media. The first newspaper coverage
showed up in April of last year, when the Boston Globe
carried a balanced article mentioning both benefits and problems
that could result from the technology. OMNI featured
nanotechnology as its cover story in November; both articles were
by Fred Hapgood.
In December the Washington Post devoted a full page
of balanced coverage to nanotechnology, on the front of its
Outlook section. This article, by Mike Richards, was picked up by
newspapers around the country, from Philadelphia to Houston to
San Jose, sometimes with eye-catching artwork.
This January, Macmillan published The Tomorrow Makers,
a non-technical book surveying work in robotics and artificial
intelligence. The author, Grant Fjermedal, vividly describes an
MIT NSG meeting and party that he attended while researching his
book, and reports on applications of nanotechnology to cell
repair. The book's back cover is a colorful excerpt on
nanotechnology. A fun read.
The January/February Bloomsbury Review covered
nanotechnology through an intelligently-written interview of Eric
Drexler. This piece, by Larry Sessions, brought the concept to a
literary audience. A seven-page article by Eric Drexler appeared
in the spring Whole Earth Review, entitled "A
Technology of Tiny Things: Nanotechnics and Civilization."
The general public in Italy is now better informed on
nanotechnology than that of any other country, due to a four-page
story by Claudio Gatti which appeared in the February issue of Europeo,
a major Italian newsmagazine. Though we lack a translation, it
seems to be an excellent introduction to the subject.
In addition to magazines and newspapers, numerous radio stations
have featured coverage of nanotechnology. These have ranged from
a seven-minute spot on National Public Radio's Morning Edition to
a three-hour interview (scheduled as a two-hour interview) by a
Christian station in Oregon.
This media coverage has stimulated interest in nanotechnology,
but information written for the general public remains very
limited. The only book on the topic is Engines of Creation
(Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1986), which is again available in
hardcover after being briefly out of stock. A large-format
paperback is due out by September. Reviews of Engines
have appeared in the New York Times, Reason,
the Life Extension Report, and MIT's Technology
Review, often carrying substantial information about the
Books on Nanotechnology
An experimental FI retreat focusing on nanotechnology was held
January 2-4 near Portland, Oregon. Participants were drawn from a
wide range of fields including technical management, computer
science, law, and creative writing.
An all-day nanotechnology symposium was held at MIT in January.
(See page 8 for a full report.)
MIT NSG member Chris Fry presented a three-hour introduction to
nanotechnology at a Brookings Institution conference on March 4,
attended chiefly by government managers.
This year's Space Development Conference (Pittsburgh, March
27-29) followed the trend of the last two conferences by
increasing coverage of nanotechnology. Two sessions and a lecture
were devoted to the topic.
A Nanotechnology Study Group was founded at the University of
California at Berkeley on April 23 after a lecture by Eric
Drexler. Much of the audience stayed for the organizational
meeting and still more attended a second meeting on May 7.
Symposium: Directions and Implications of Advanced
Computing, Computer Professionals for Social
Responsibility, July 12, Seattle, WA. Contact Jonathan Jacky,
Artificial Life Workshop (150 person limit),
Sept. 21-25, Los Alamos National Laboratory. Contact Marian
MIT Nanotechnology Symposium (tentative),
October (date to be decided), MIT Nanotechnology Study Group, no
additional information available.
Micro Robots and Teleoperators Workshop (120
person limit), IEEE Robotics and Automation Council, Nov. 9-11,
Hyannis, Cape Cod, MA. Contact W. S. Trimmer, 201-949-7907.
Workshop: Hypertext 87 (125 person limit), Nov.
13-15, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Contact John
B. Smith, 919-962-5021.
Space Development Conference, May 27-30, 1988,
Denver, CO, 303-692-6788.
Since completing his book Engines
of Creation, FI's president K. Eric Drexler has
lectured widely on nanotechnology. These lectures have ranged
from technical presentations at universities to corporate
seminars to talks for general audiences. A partial list follows:
- Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute Colloquium, Woods
- MIT Nanotechnology Symposium, Cambridge, MA
- Tektronix, Beaverton, OR
- Synektron Corp., Portland, OR
- Lockheed Research Colloquium, Lockheed Palo Alto Research
Laboratory, Palo Alto, CA
- University of Colorado at Boulder, Boulder, CO
- American Astronautical Society Conference, Boulder, CO
- Biostar, Boulder, CO
- Denver Natural History Museum, Denver, CO
- Cybernetic Systems Program Colloquium, San Jose State
- Computer Forum Distinguished Lecture, Stanford University
- Mechanical Engineering Seminar, University of California
- Third International Symposium, on Molecular Electronic
Devices, Washington, DC
- Eris Society Annual Meeting, Snowmass, CO
- Schlumberger Palo Alto Research Laboratory, Palo Alto, CA
- Space Sciences Academy, Stanford University
- Palantir Corporation, Santa Clara, CA
- Colloquium, Oregon Graduate Center for Study and
Research, Beaverton, OR
- Oregon Health Sciences University, Portland, OR
- Fifth Annual Conference on Space Development, Seattle, WA
- Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, Distinguished Lecturers
Forum, Palo Alto, CA
- Life Extension Breakthrough Conference, Anaheim, CA
- M.I.T. Nanotechnology Study Group, M.I.T.
From Foresight Update 1,
originally published 15 June 1987.