Foresight Update 9
A publication of the Foresight Institute
by K. Eric Drexler
This spring I visited Japan for eight days, gave nine
lectures, and saw many laboratories. Where nanotechnology is
concerned, Japanese research is impressive in its extent,
organization, and direction. Japan may be somewhat weak in basic
science, but it has growing strength in basic technology. What is
more, Japanese leaders appear to regard molecular engineering as
a very basic technology. This, together with long
planning horizons, abundant capital, and a strong predisposition
to interdisciplinary, technology-centered research, has had
results much like those one would expect:
The magnitude of Japanese interest in nanotechnology started
to become clear when I found that my first talk--initially
planned as a lecture with a single sponsor--had been turned into
the centerpiece of a six-speaker minisymposium covering a range
of nanotechnology-related topics and hosted by the Exploratory
Research in Advanced Technology program (ERATO), the Tsukuba
Research Consortium, and the Ministry of International Trade and
Industry (MITI). It drew an audience of twice the expected size.
The other speakers discussed natural molecular machines (such as
the bacterial flagellar motor), metrology, and micromachines, but
artificial molecular machines were the focus. For the first time,
I met a group of researchers studying the design and construction
of molecular machines--a refreshing change from my experience in
the U.S., where audiences often seem surprised by the idea.
There was broad agreement at the symposium that the construction
of molecular machines and devices is a natural and important goal
for the future--and a goal to be pursued today. The co-organizer,
Jun Miyake of MITI, spoke of the desirability of using mechanical
control to guide the assembly of complex molecular systems. He
welcomed my suggestion of "molecular systems
engineering" as a name for work in molecular electronics and
machinery, and named several major research groups in Japan
heading in this direction.
One of the symposium's cosponsors, ERATO, is a program of the
Research Development Corporation of Japan (JRDC), designed to
support unusual research efforts. Both government and industry
provide funds; contributing companies share in the research
The ERATO approach is unusual: each project is fully funded up
front for about five years at $2-3 million per year and works
toward an ambitious goal under the direction of a senior
researcher. Project leaders are drawn from universities and other
research organizations, including industry. A typical project has
20 researchers with an average age in their early 30s, and
encourages initiative by young researchers to an extent which is
unusual in Japan. A researcher is commonly loaned by a company
for two years, then a new researcher is rotated in; this lets
companies expose more researchers not only to the research
results, but to the innovative research atmosphere.
Robert M. Lewis, an American researcher who left Shell in order
to spend time at ERATO, says that Shell and many other U.S.
companies are reducing long term and basic research, demanding
that it be justified in terms of today's products. He reports
that ERATO gives him much greater freedom in his research
The growing level of ambition at ERATO can be seen by comparing
two projects. The Yoshida Nanomechanism Project ends this year;
its focus has been on measurement, with the objective of
furthering "nano-engineering." In contrast, the Aono
Atomcraft Project, which will run through 1994, aims to use STMs
to move and bond atoms to make unique materials. This project
plans to use STM probes to modify surfaces with atomic precision,
and to manipulate biomolecules. These goals overlap with those of
the hybrid protoassembler proposed by myself and John Foster (Nature,
15 Feb 90), which I discussed in each of my talks in Japan. The
construction of such a device is clearly within the scope of the
objectives laid out by Masakazu Aono.
ERATO is also pursuing the construction of molecular machines
patterned on biological systems. The Kunitake Molecular
Architecture Project focuses on self-assembly and 3D molecular
architectures. The Hotani Molecular Dynamic Assembly Project is
also exploring self-assembly (and the bacterial flagellar motor
in particular) with the goal of producing intelligent materials.
The project ends in 1991, but its description includes some
longer-term goals: the construction of "dynamic molecular
machine systems" which use both self-assembly and
self-repair. Hirokazu Hotani is a researcher to watch, since his
objectives will advance technology along the path to a molecular
Nobuhisa Akabane, President of JRDC, is working to
internationalize the ERATO program. Non-Japanese research
organizations can cooperate with JRDC by jointly sponsoring a
research project, sharing the cost and results. Individual
researchers can participate through the Science and Technology
Agency (STA) Fellowship Program, which brings 130 researchers to
Japanese host institutes for visits of up to two years.
Researchers can also swap information with JRDC through the
Research Information Program. In light of the work in progress
there, these are substantial opportunities.
Protein engineering is now widely appreciated as a path to the
development of molecular machinery, assemblers, and
nanotechnology. During my visit, Japan's Protein Engineering
Research Institute announced the successful design, synthesis,
and folding of the largest engineered protein to date, a de
novo TIM-barrel structure containing about 230 amino acids.
From a systems engineering perspective, it is of interest to know
how much work this took. Questioning revealed that the initial
design took three months of calendar time, but only a single
researcher-month of full-time effort. The synthesis required two
and one-half months of genetic engineering work. The design
worked on the first try.
PERI is a unique institution. Now two years old, it has some 50
or 60 researchers aided by about 15 technicians, and is divided
along functional lines into five divisions: design, synthesis,
purification and functional evaluation, structural
characterization, and computer support systems (with hardware
including a Fujitsu supercomputer). Although U.S. scientists
doing protein engineering do collaborate, there is no similar
organization here. What is more, in the U.S., protein engineering
is often treated primarily as a way to learn things, but
at PERI it is viewed primarily as a way to build things.
As an engineer, I find this promising.
PERI is not a static establishment en route to stagnation,
but a project with a deadline six years from now. (Successful
projects, of course, are re-launched with a new name and adjusted
direction.) At PERI, a Research Director deprecated its
capabilities, but he was unable to name another organization in
the same class.
At the Tokyo Institute of Technology--Japan's MIT--I found
major changes in progress that will position this school for
progress toward nanotechnology. For many decades, Tokyo Tech has
had two major divisions: a Faculty of Science and a Faculty of
Engineering. It is now adding a Faculty of Bioscience and
Biotechnology, to consist of four departments: a Department of
Bioscience, a Department of Bioengineering, a Department of
Biomolecular Engineering and what was termed a "Department
of Biostructure." The establishment of a new Faculty in
Japanese university is today a rare event.
What U.S. university has a department explicitly devoted to
molecular engineering? Not MIT. Japan has at least two.
Molecular machines and scanning probe microscopes are
applicable to the "bottom-up" path to nanotechnology.
The "top-down" approach (gradually making smaller
machines) is popular, but is seldom seen as a viable path to
nanotechnology; and indeed, the micromachine community in
the U.S. has little interest in nanotechnology. In contrast,
micromachinists from Japan showed a good turnout at the Foresight
Institute's first nanotechnology conference, and invited me to
speak on the topic at their Second Micro Machines Symposium; the
symposium's sponsor, the Micromachine Society, financed my trip
to Japan. (Special thanks are due to Professor Naomasa Nakajima
of Tokyo University for his extensive work on setting up my
Research combining what Americans tend to regard as 'separate
disciplines' is pursued energetically in Japan. Tokyo Tech's new
faculty was mentioned above; Kyoto University's recently
established Department of Molecular Engineering fits the same
The venerable Institute for Physical and Chemical Research
(RIKEN) has broad-based interdisciplinary strength. Hiroyuki
Sasabe, head of the Frontier Materials Research Program at RIKEN,
reports that the Institute has expertise in organic synthesis,
protein engineering, and STM technology (Aono of the Aono
Atomcraft Project is based at RIKEN). Sasabe says that his
laboratory may need a hybrid protoassembler to accomplish its
goals in molecular engineering. I asked him how long it might
take to develop one in his laboratory: he estimated 10 to 15
How much attention is Japan giving to nanoscale systems and
nanotechnology? In the suburbs of Tokyo, while visiting the Tokyo
University of Agriculture and Technology, I was shown a
multistory concrete building under construction: it will house a
broadly-chartered "Nanotechnology Center."
According to Hiroyuki Sasabe, other countries have also
identified molecular systems engineering as a vital direction and
acted accordingly. In Italy there is a three-year-old consortium
focusing on biochips; it includes Fiat and other major companies.
Over twenty companies are working together in a new Italian
effort on bioelectronics. Sasabe also cited a Max Planck
Institute molecular engineering effort in Germany, and a new
molecular electronics project in the U.K. He knows of no
equivalent projects in the U.S.
In the judgment of many researchers, molecular systems
engineering--leading as it will to nanotechnology and molecular
manufacturing--is among the top two or three fields in its
importance to 21st century technology. Although the U.S. has
great strength in relevant areas of basic science, molecular
systems engineering is not primarily a scientific
problem: no amount of scientific study can yield a working
aircraft, and no amount of scientific study can yield a working
assembler. Progress toward nanotechnology will depend on
interdisciplinary technology-oriented teams guided by a vision of
what molecular systems engineering can accomplish. Today, Japan
has the vision and the teams. The United States doesn't.
For a variety of reasons (e.g., avoiding tensions that
could spawn an arms race) the ideal way to develop nanotechnology
is through an open, international program among the democracies.
I advocated this when the U.S. seemed ahead; I advocate it today.
Japan's Human Frontiers Research Program can serve as a model and
JRDC's International Joint Research Program could serve as an
initial framework. Other approaches may be superior. Regardless
of organizational forms, however, to be welcome as an equal
participant, the U.S. must bring to the table equal resources and
K. Eric Drexler is
a Visiting Scholar at Stanford University and President of the
Foresight Institute. For further information on JRDC and ERATO,
write to JRDC, 5-2, Nagata-cho 2-chome, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 100,
Japan; fax 03-581-1486.
Anxious for Policy Discussions
by Dan Shafer
Saying that, for some of the technologies involved "it
may already be getting to be too late," Prof. Gerald (Gary)
Feinberg urges that the Foresight Institute move forward as
quickly as possible with the "broadest possible public
debate" on the ethical issues involved in the ultimate
implementation of nanotechnology. "We've already lost more
time than we can afford," Feinberg, a member of the FI
Advisory Board, said in an interview recently.
Planning and assessing the social implications of new
technologies is practically a life-long interest for Feinberg, a
theoretical physicist and former Chairman of the Physics
Department at New York's Columbia University. In 1969, he
published a book called The Prometheus Project.
"Prometheus," he points out, "is a Greek word
meaning foresight." Feinberg recalls predicting in the book
that "In the next 50 years, there would be a number of
important technological developments that could fundamentally
alter the way the human race lives. The thrust of the book was
that we needed foresight into what the human race and human life
should be like in the future, which of these potential
technologies we should foster and which we should wish to
Not surprisingly, it is the public policy formation aspect of FI
that most interests Feinberg. "I have an underlying
feeling," the respected researcher says, "that these
questions are far too important to be left to scientists alone.
Almost unavoidably, scientists' decisions are colored by their
very nature as scientists. Their intent is to benefit science per
se. But what might be viewed as the 'public interest' might
or might not be the same thing as what is in the best interests
Feinberg goes so far as to say that, if he were to discover
some fundamental scientific method of, for example, controlling
the aging process, "I'd want to see a consensus on the
underlying issues before proceeding. If I simply publish it, it
is almost certain that some people would try to make use of it.
It isn't possible to prevent the idea from being implemented once
it's known. As an individual, I'd be inclined not to publish
until I had a better sense of what should be done with the
discovery." He cautions, however, that this view is
"purely personal. I'm not prepared to urge this position on
Although he recognizes that many, if not most, of these decisions
in the broader arena will have to be made on a case-by-case
basis, he thinks "we should be able to work toward a
situation where individual scientists aren't faced with the
issue. The fundamental decisions about the future of society need
to provide the framework within which scientific decisions about
implementation, encouragement, and so forth, are made
Asked if government should play some role in this process,
Feinberg points out that there is a flaw in the question.
"The problem is, the question assumes we already know what
we want to do as a species. The thrust of my book The
Prometheus Project was that we have no general agreement
on where we as a species want to go. The government might play
some role in the implementation of these policies, ultimately,
but not in the larger planning arena."
Seeing the need for a "broad range of viewpoints" much
like the discussion groups FI has proposed from its inception,
Feinberg suggests that such groups as organized religion need a
place in the process. "As a matter of strategy," he
believes, "organized religion must play a role in this
discussion. Any group that even feels it has a stake in the
outcome should be part of the process."
Interest in Technology
Feinberg's interest in molecular engineering and molecular
computing dates back to the early 1960s when he read about a talk by
Richard Feynman called "There's Plenty of Room at the
Bottom." He thought the concepts were intriguing but soon
moved on to other interests. Then about six years ago he was
working on his book, Solid Clues, on the subject of
the future of science, he decided he should include a chapter on
technology while devoting most of the book to pure science.
"In the process of reading stuff for that chapter," he
recalls, "I ran across Eric Drexler's paper in
the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences."
Drexler and Feinberg had met much earlier when Drexler, then an
undergrad, had attended the first conference on space colonies
and Feinberg had also appeared there. "I was impressed that
he'd gone on to a second really important idea," Feinberg
As a result of reading Drexler's paper, he purchased Engines of Creation,
read it, and found it intriguing. "At some point later, Eric
called and asked me to serve on the Foresight Institute's Board
of Advisors. I was delighted to say yes."
What's Hot Now?
Feinberg thinks that one of the most interesting and
significant areas of research that could have great importance
for nanotechnologists is the research in x-ray holography going
on at a number of places including Los Alamos National
Laboratories. "Ordinary holography," he points out,
"uses visible light in the form of optical lasers. The image
they produce is similar in size to the original object. X-ray
holography, however, promises the ability eventually to create
holograms that we can then use visible light to see and blow up.
We should be able to examine the hologram of a virus, blown up to
dog size, and really see what is going on inside the structures
of these tiny objects. The first x-ray holograms have already
been produced. Within five years, we'll have x-ray holography
with large magnifications. This will give us a way of seeing what
we are doing on a nano level."
Ultimately, Feinberg thinks that this and other technologies will
emerge into the area of nanotechnology applications he feels is
the most interesting: the production of ultra-intelligent beings.
"The combination of ultra-intelligent molecular computers
and medical applications," he says, "converges at a
point where I think the most difference can be made in the lives
of the most people."
He just hopes we're ready to grapple with the ethical and
public-policy issues that such a development will pose before it
is too late to deal with them rationally.
Dan Shafer is an author and consultant in computation and
Ralph Merkle has given
three talks on nanotechnology recently: California State
University at Hayward (sponsored by Sigma Xi Research Society and
the School of Science) on February 8, one for Hewlett-Packard on
April 11, and a seminar for a Stanford Information Systems Lab
course on May 10.
On April 3 Eric Drexler spoke on nanotechnology as the first Iles
Memorial Lecture at Iowa State University. See elsewhere in this issue
for his report from Japan, which included talks for Research
Center for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of
Tokyo, MITI, Sony, Tokyo Institute of Technology, Institute of
Physical and Chemical Research (RIKEN), Second Micro Machine
Symposium, Japan Society for the Promotion of Sciences, Tokyo
University of Agriculture and Technology, and the Protein
Engineering Research Institute.
Mark S. Miller
spoke on Agoric
Open Systems at the Evolutionary Economics meeting at George
Mason University. See coverage elsewhere in this issue.
Bootstrap Seminar, one of an ongoing series,
June 19-21, Stanford University. Led by distinguished visionary
and hypertext pioneer Douglas Engelbart. Special focus on the
design requirements for an Open Hyperdocument System. Contact
STM '90, Fifth International Conference on
Scanning Tunneling Microscopy/Spectroscopy, July 23-27, Hyatt
Regency Hotel, Baltimore, MD. Sponsored by the American Vacuum
Society and the U.S. Office of Naval Research. Contact Chairman
James Murday, 202-767-3026, fax 202-404-7139.
NANO I, First International Conference on
Nanometer Scale Science and Technology, held in conjunction with
STM '90 described above. Includes investigation of fabrication
and characterization of nanometer scale phenomena in surface
chemistry and physics, solid-state physics, metrology, materials
science and engineering, biology and biomaterials, mechanics,
sensors, and electronics technology. Same contact as STM '90.
DIAC-90, Directions and Implications of Advanced
Computing, July 28, Cambridge, MA, $25-$40. Sponsored by Computer
Professionals for Social Responsibility. Explores misuses of
computing and how to prevent them. Contact C. Whitcomb,
AAAI-90, National Conference on Artificial
Intelligence, July 29-August 3, Boston, MA, $160-$315. Very broad
coverage of AI topics. Contact AAAI, 415-328-3123, fax
Frontiers of Supercomputing II: A National
Reassessment, August, Los Alamos National Laboratory, sponsored
by NSF, DOE, NASA, DARPA, NSA, the Supercomputing Research
Center, and Los Alamos. Small strictly invitational meeting;
Ralph Merkle will speak on nanotechnology at a session on the
future computing environment.
From Foresight Update 9, originally
published 30 June 1990.
Foresight thanks Dave Kilbridge for converting Update 9 to
html for this web page.