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Foresight Update 5

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

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Books of Note

Books are listed in order of increasing specialization and level of reading challenge. Your suggestions are welcome. And remember, if a book's price looks too high, your library should be able to get it though interlibrary loans.--Editor

Signal: Communication Tools for the Information Age, ed. Kevin Kelly, Harmony Books, 1988, paperback, $16.95. A Whole Earth Catalog focusing on high tech subjects, mixes serious items (e.g., FI) with lighter ones. Foreword by FI advisor Stewart Brand.

Filters Against Folly, by Garrett Hardin, Penguin Books, 1985, paperback, $7.95. A respected environmentalist looks at the relationship between ecology and economics over time, pointing out the problems of "commonization" and the error of thinking every worldwide problem is "global." A systems approach to a difficult problem; highly recommended. One jarring note: Hardin's seeming belief that economics is a zero-sum game.

Molecules, by P.W. Atkins, Scientific American Library Series #21 (distributed by W.H. Freeman), 1987, hardcover, $32.95. Lavishly illustrated and elegantly written in nontechnical language, it makes the molecular world understandable. Requires no prior knowledge of chemistry.

Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, ed. Irene Greif, Morgan Kaufman, 1988, hardcover, $36.95. A collection of papers on groupware and hypertext. Includes classic visionary papers by Vannevar Bush and Douglas Engelbart, interesting work by Thomas Malone, Robert Johansen, Xerox PARC, others.

Text, Context, and Hypertext, ed. Edward Barrett, MIT Press, 1988, hardcover, $35. Diverse set of papers on how computers and hypertext have changed the way people write using computers. Strong emphasis on computer documentation. Quality is uneven, with some overlap, but includes some noteworthy papers.

The Ecology of Computation, ed. Bernardo Huberman, Elsevier Science Publishers, 1988, paperback, $39.50. Now available in a somewhat more affordable edition. Open-systems perspective on advanced computing. Includes a set of three papers on agoric market-based computation. For the computer literate.

Proteins: Structures and Molecular Properties, by Thomas E. Creighton, W.H. Freeman, 1984, hardcover, $37.95. Invaluable reference for protein designers and nanotechnologists thinking about molecular self-assembly.

Quanta, by P.W. Atkins, Clarendon, 1974 (reprint 1985), paperback, $29.95. Qualitative explanations of quantum theory concepts with a bare minimum of mathematics, in dictionary format. A reference rather than a beginner's text.

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Hypermedia Workshop

Since last issue we've received news of a Hypermedia Design Workshop held last October. Organized by Jan Walker of DEC and John Leggett of Texas A&M--and funded by DEC--it was the first of two invited hypermedia meetings. The goal of the first was to bring together representatives of as many of the major hypertext media systems as possible, have them compare designs, and design a hypermedia storage substrate that would support the various systems. The second meeting is planned for Texas in early 1989 and will look at user interface issues and standards.

The following are the participants, their organizations, and the systems they've worked on: Rob Akscyn (Knowledge Systems: KMS), Doug Engelbart (McDonnell-Douglas: NLS, Augment), Steve Feiner (Columbia: FRESS, Interactive Graphical Documents), Frank Halasz (leader of a new hypertext team at MCC; also Xerox's NoteCards), John Leggett (Texas A&M: teaches graduate course on hypertext), Don McCracken (Knowledge Systems: ZOG, KMS), Norm Meyrowitz (Brown: Intermedia), Tim Oren (Apple: HyperCard), Amy Pearl (Sun: Sun Link Service), Mayer Schwartz (Tektronix: Neptune/HAM), Randy Trigg (Xerox PARC: TEXTNET, NoteCards), Jan Walker (DEC: Concordia, Symbolics Document Examiner), Bill Weiland (U of Maryland: Hyperties).

The only (known) major hypermedia systems not represented were Xanadu and Guide. Marc Stiegler, Xanadu's Director of Product Development, reports that all team members were "locked in their offices, creating software" and therefore unable to attend.

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Letters to FI

The Foresight Institute receives hundreds of letters requesting information and sending ideas. Herewith some excerpts:

I am enclosing an article, "Microscopic Motor is a First Step," by Robert Pool, published in the Oct. 21 Science. The article discusses recent developments in micron-scale mechanics. I have seen similar discussions elsewhere.

A problem in this and other stories on micromachines is that they often confuse information about nanomachines with information about micromachines. Expecting micromachinery (which is developing sooner) to accomplish the tasks of nanomachinery could disillusion proponents of micromachinery, and mistakenly discredit claims for nanomachinery. The practical distinction between these two technologies needs to be clarified.

Tom McKendree
Garden Grove, CA

I agree that progress toward nanotechnology can't be prevented by any sort of organized suppression. If any one group, country, or group of countries tries, someone else will make breakthroughs eventually. And I believe that once it's developed, any attempt to make the technology proprietary will be short-lived. The secrets of nanotechnology will be simply too important to not have attempts made at espionage, midnight computer hacking, and theft...

"The Problem of Nonsense in Nanotechnology" points out the problems of spreading misconceptions about nanotechnology and their interference with foresight. If nanotechnology has the capacity to utterly change society for better or worse, then the general public needs to get prepared. But I don't think people will be as interested in the details of the technology as much as the kinds of change that will be brought about. Engines of Creation points out a future, perhaps as close as the first half of the 21st century, with fantastic possibilities. To spark curiosity and interest it's necessary to discuss things like remaking the physical shape of humanity. But dwelling on the fantastic would be an open invitation to bogosity. To make best use of the next few decades, the public needs to focus on issues such as population control, active shields, environmental renewal, and space exploration.

John Papiewski
Elgin, IL

Currently I am a student at USC, interested in pursuing a career in the field of nanotechnology...How should I structure my curriculum in order to pursue this goal? It seems that this field is interdisciplinary in nature, consisting of physics, electrical engineering, molecular biology, and chemistry. Is there a common denominator?

Shawn Whitlow
Manhattan Beach, CA

Students and others interested should request a free copy of FI's Briefing #1, "Studying Nanotechnology." Send a stamped, self-addressed envelope.

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Ultimate Computing

Book review by Ralph Merkle

Stuart R. Hameroff's Ultimate Computing: Biomolecular Consciousness and NanoTechnology (Elsevier, 1987, $78), is an uncritical mix of fact, fancy, and fallacy. Hameroff says "...this book flings metaphors at the truth. Perhaps one or more will land on target..." Perhaps--but the reader must sort the hits from the misses. One miss is his central premise, that "...the cytoskeleton is the cell's nervous system, the biological controller/computer. In the brain this implies that the basic levels of cognition are within nerve cells, that cytoskeletal filaments are the roots of consciousness." (Emphasis in original.) Unfortunately, there is every reason to believe this is completely wrong. This casts something of a pall over the book.

Hameroff's chapter on nanotechnology is better than his average, although it adopts the curious perspective that nanotechnology really began with Schneiker in 1986, with Drexler mentioned only in passing. (Readers can check Drexler's 1981 PNAS paper and decide for themselves.) This is explained by the acknowledgements which say that "Conrad Schneiker [Hameroff's research assistant] supplied most of the material on nanotechnology and replicators for Chapter 10..."

Hameroff covers a lot of ground. He has chapters on the philosophy of the mind, the origin of life, the cytoskeleton, protein dynamics, anesthesia (a good chapter--Hameroff is an anesthesiologist), viruses, and nanotechnology. He gives his own qualifications in a dozen fields as " expert in none, but a dabbler in all..." He's mostly right. There are better books written by more qualified people--the reader is advised to select from among them.

Dr. Merkle's interests range from neurophysiology to computer security; he also lectures on nanotechnology.

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Nanotechnology media interest continues to increase. Since last issue we've seen articles in these major publications: IBM Research Magazine (Fall 1988), Fortune (Dec. 5), OMNI (Jan. 89), and Interview (Jan. 89). Prospects are good for a Nova-style British documentary on nanotechnology.

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Meeting News

January and February saw a number of nanotechnology-related events: MIT's annual symposium (see report elsewhere in this issue), a lecture at Bell Communications Research--a spinoff of Bell Labs--on Jan. 13, major coverage of protein folding and design at the AAAS meeting in San Francisco, a lecture at Silicon Valley's Software Entrepreneurs Forum on Feb. 17, a nanotechnology Physics Colloquium at the University of Seattle [see correction], and Nanocon, a regional meeting sponsored by the Seattle Nanotechnology Study Group. The last three have yet to occur as we finish this issue, so will be reported on next time.

In addition to the items listed in the "Upcoming Events" column, both Hewlett-Packard and Union Carbide are planning meetings to discuss nanotechnology.

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Nanotechnology Education

A Foresight Institute Briefing paper is available for students and others who want to learn the basics underlying nanotechnology. Send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to FI and ask for Briefing #1, "Studying Nanotechnology."

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Nanotechnology Policy

A team of graduate students and faculty at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin has been asked to conduct a study of the political and economic ramifications of nanotechnology. Headed by Dr. Susan Hadden, this research project is in the format of a two-term course. The fall 1988 term started off with an introductory lecture by Eric Drexler; the students went on to study the technology itself and the effects of other formerly new technologies such as biotechnology. This spring they will attempt to predict the kinds of social, economic, and political changes inherent in widespread adoption of nanotechnology, and will review various policy responses and their possible effects.

The effort is funded by Futuretrends, a nonprofit educational group. Roger Duncan, president of Futuretrends and longtime Foresight supporter, initiated the project, which is expected to release its report in mid-summer 1989. [see correction]

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Nanotechnology & Microengineering Progress

Newsletter review by Chris Peterson

This quarterly newsletter covers a wide range of topics, arranged under five headings:

  • Microchips--semiconductor technology
  • Micromachines--miniature and micromachines
  • Molecular Engineering--genetic engineering and biotechnology
  • Sensors--a subset of micromachines
  • Microstructures and Micromechanics--includes new materials, computer advances, brain theory, math, and semiconductor fabrication, as well as microstructures and micromechanics

The items consist of abstracts describing research news, technical papers, company announcements, and patents. Company profiles and brief market analysis comments also appear. The publication's commercial slant will be useful for investors.

The enabling technologies leading toward nanotechnology--protein and other polymer design, supramolecular (and biomimetic) chemistry, and STM/AFM based micromanipulation--were not covered in the premiere issue we saw, so the publication's name seems a bit of a misnomer. However, this has the advantage for potential subscribers that N&MP should have little if any overlap with Update.

The newsletter does a good job at summarizing progress in various micron-scale technologies. For the technically literate reader who wants to keep up with these, for business or other reasons, this publication could easily be worth the subscription price.

N&MP is available from STICS, Inc., 9714 South Rice Ave., Houston, TX 77096, (713) 723-3949. It is edited by Donald Saxman and costs $200 per year, with a 25% discount for libraries, universities, and medical schools, and an extra $20 charge for overseas airmail. A sample copy of the first issue costs $20.

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Nanotechnology Online

There is a nanotechnology Netnews group, sci.nanotech, on the USENET system. The USENET newsgroups form a large, distributed, hierarchical electronic bulletin board; formerly available only to those with UNIX machines, it is now accessible to anyone through services such as the WELL at 415-332-6106 (data), 415-332-4335 (voice) and the Portal at 408-725-0561 (data), 408-973-9111 (voice).

In cooperation with FI, sci.nanotech carries most FI publications. The moderator is Josh Hall ( or rutgers!!josh), who can answer specific questions about the group by electronic mail.

[Note: JoSH's current email address is He maintains an archive of nanotechnology papers and related material at ]

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From Foresight Update 5, originally published 1 March 1989.

Foresight thanks Dave Kilbridge for converting Update 5 to html for this web page.

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