Foresight Update 11
A publication of the Foresight Institute
A documentary on nanotechnology entitled "Little by
Little" has won the Prix du Centre National de la Recherche
Scientifique. Produced by David Kennard and others at InCA for
the Equinox series on Channel 4 in England, the program was
honored at the 7th International Television Science Broadcast
Festival in Paris last October, sponsored by the Centre National
de la Recherche Scientifique and the Agence Jules Verne. An
international jury chaired by the Dean of the Faculty of
Education Science at Tokyo University awarded the prizes. The
award cited the program "because it shows how the dreams of
one scientist can create effervescence in worlds as separated
from one another as chemistry, biology, and technology."
The February 7 issue of Nature featured a short but
striking article on nanotechnology in Japan (see article in this issue).
The March-April issue of The Futurist included a
nanotechnology article, as did the January-February issue of
Canada's Equinox magazine. The New Scientist
ran a review of the British edition of Engines of Creation
last fall (1Sep90).
Choice of Conferences
Foresight supporters interested in nanotechnology have a
variety of meetings to consider attending this year. Each puts a
different emphasis on the topic:
- advocacy of speedy development
- environmental issues and applications
- technical approaches.
The last is the focus of the Second Foresight Conference on
Molecular Nanotechnology, discussed elsewhere in this issue.
Space Development Conference
The space development community has long been familiar with
the concept of nanotechnology: one of the first public talks on
the topic was given at the 1982 Space Development Conference.
This year's meeting will be held in San Antonio on May 22-27,
with the Foresight Institute as a cosponsor.
On the afternoon of Saturday, May 25, Foresight president Eric
Drexler will speak on the relevance of nanotechnology to the goal
of space development. Hardware difficulties have plagued both
government and private space efforts; we need materials and
vehicles which are both more reliable and less expensive. The
best prospect for major advances in these areas is molecular
The next day will feature a workshop focusing on the next steps:
what those present can do to advance the field. The National
Space Society--the primary sponsor of the meeting along with the
Southwest Research Institute--is part of a family of pro-space
groups, some of which have substantial experience in influencing
government policy and spending. (This is part of the reason that
NASA's budget is larger than that of the National Science
Foundation.) The workshop will explore how this expertise could
be used to further nanotechnology R&D, and how the
individuals present can help make it happen.
In addition to the talk and workshop, we will have a table at
which Foresight supporters can gather to share information and
make contacts. We are looking for volunteers to staff this table,
especially on Sunday morning and afternoon. If you would like to
help, please notify the Foresight office.
Everyone interested in speeding nanotechnology development is
urged to come to the conference and help work out a strategy. All
Foresight directors will be attending the weekend segment of the
meeting; this is your chance to speak with them and other
Foresight supporters. Prior to May 1, registration is only $70
for those affiliated with Foresight; afterward the cost is $80.
The student rate is $50. See the Upcoming Events list in
this issue for more details.
The Ecotech conference being held November 14-17 in Monterey,
California, will explore ways in which technology can be used to
improve the environment. As the conference brochure asks:
"How can the resources, creativity, and ingenuity of
technology industries by applied to solving the world's most
pressing social and environmental problems?" The potential
of nanotechnology for clean manufacturing and for repairing
damage to the biosphere will be discussed in a talk by Eric
Drexler and in a later workshop, along with observations
regarding the potential for abuse. The Foresight Institute is a
participating organization in Ecotech, along with groups ranging
from Computing Professionals for Social Responsibility, Utne
Reader, and Econet to Apple Computer and Global Business Network.
Since it is they who will eventually implement clean methods of
production, attendees from the fields of investment, business,
and industry are being targeted, as well as scientists,
technologists, and policy makers. Based on the registration fee
($595) we conclude that the meeting is designed for decision
makers and professionals in relevant fields, rather than for
grassroots environmental activists. (Foresight hopes to sponsor
or cosponsor an activist-oriented meeting in the future.)
More details on the meeting will be announced as they become
available. Meanwhile, mark your calendars if you think there's a
chance you may be able to attend. But don't wait too long to
register: attendance is limited to 450 people, and interest in
the meeting is expected to be intense. See the Upcoming Events list in
this issue for details.
The Second Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology
will be held on November 7-9, 1991, in Palo Alto, California.
Taking the theme "Toward Molecular Control," it is
sponsored by the Foresight Institute, Stanford University's
Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and University
of Tokyo's Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology.
The conference is an invitational meeting of scientists and
technologists working in fields leading toward molecular
nanotechnology: thorough three-dimensional structural control of
materials and devices at the molecular level. The conference will
cover topics relevant to the pursuit of molecular control,
drawing from fields such as:
- physics (e.g. proximal probes such as the STM and AFM)
- chemistry (e.g. molecular recognition)
- biochemistry (e.g. protein design)
- materials science and engineering
- computer science (e.g. molecular modeling, system design
- mechanical engineering
Developments in these fields are converging, opening
opportunities for fruitful collaboration in developing new
instruments, devices, and capabilities. Presentations will:
- describe the current state of the art in techniques and
tools for molecular control;
- suggest experiments and approaches for extending
- propose targets for near-term research and development.
A major objective will be to provide participants with the
information and contacts they need to make progress toward
molecular control. Since these efforts frequently cross
disciplinary boundaries, the meeting will be organized to help
attendees make contact with potential research collaborators
outside their own field. The last day of the conference will be
devoted to workshop-style discussion of the approaches of
greatest interest to those present. Throughout the meeting there
will be demonstrations by leading vendors of products useful in
the pursuit of molecular control, including molecular modeling
software and hardware, and proximal probe systems.
Call for Papers
Contributions on relevant topics are solicited for
presentation in lecture or poster format. Potential contributors
are asked to submit an abstract (200-400 words), including names,
addresses, telephone and fax numbers of the author(s), and an
indication of whether oral or poster presentation is preferred.
Abstracts of both oral and poster papers will be available to
attendees at the meeting, and papers of both kinds will be
reviewed for publication. In choosing papers, priority will be
given to (1) cogent descriptions of the state of the art in
techniques relevant to the construction of complex molecular
systems, (2) well-grounded proposals for interdisciplinary
efforts which, if funded and pursued, could substantially advance
the state of the art, and (3) reports of recent relevant
Proceedings of the conference will be refereed and published
in a special issue of the international journal Nanotechnology,
published by the Institute of Physics.
Abstracts due April 30, 1991
Notification of acceptance May 15, 1991
Manuscripts due November 7, 1991
Due to space limitations, participation at the conference is by
invitation. Abstracts, requests for invitations, and requests for
additional information should be directed to the Foresight
Institute, PO Box 61058, Palo Alto, CA 94306, USA. Tel
415-324-2490; fax 415-948-5649; electronic mail:
Foresight contact information
Many people wrote to offer friendly criticism of Robin
Foresight" proposal, which we published in a previous
issue (Foresight Update 10). Here he responds to a
few such comments:
"One of the problems with your idea, as I see it, is that
it allows a way for special interests to try to buy public policy
decisions. Suppose the government is thinking about funding
projects for the development of new energy sources, and wants to
create a market for the question of whether or not (say) cheap
fusion will be available within 10 years. The gas/electricity
industry then has a vested interest in heavily buying up negative
opinions of the issue, since such a program would later cut into
their profits. They thus have the motive and means (more money
than others are willing to invest, even if the odds are good)
to...create a self-fulfilling prophesy...
All in all, a very intriguing proposal."
Carnegie Mellon University
Hanson: Yes, it would be dangerous to decide
to fund fusion based on bets about whether fusion power will be
cheap in 10 years, since this will in part depend on whether
fusion research is funded now. But a slight variation can help us
to avoid such self-reinforcing prophesies. We could bet on the
future price of fusion power conditional on the level of funding
between now and then. (A conditional bet is "called
off" if the condition is not met.) There would be different
bets about different possible funding levels, and funders might
decide to fund fusion only if the market predicted that the
results with funding were sufficiently better than the results
The problem of harmful self-fulfilling prophecies (also called
"moral hazard") is present but tolerable in most
markets. Anyone can buy stock, though they might sell short the
stock of some aspirin maker and then poison their capsules. Moral
hazard can be avoided entirely if we stick to bets about
unchangeable facts of nature, like the mass of the electron
"It seems that in many cases neither a deadline nor a
jury will be necessary. If the market is now more convinced than
before that some statement is true, it is by itself an
opportunity for the statement's supporters to benefit from their
bets, and no official verifications are needed....One can also be
allowed to withdraw all or a part of his stake at any time by [an
equivalent of] betting against himself according to the current
odds, and then taking away the money he has put for both
sides--without affecting anyone else's interests. The presence of
a jury is costly, complicates the situation, is unnecessary when
the jury agrees with the market's opinion, and creates conflicts
and public discontent when it doesn't. This mechanism by itself
will hardly be sufficient for education on, or funding of, any
given subject, and will have to be carefully integrated with
other existing methods of work and coordinational entities.
But [your proposal] is a promising idea, and in my opinion is
well worth working on..."
Hanson: We do want to avoid the various costs
of using judges that you mention, though if we do away with
judges completely I fear a strategic bargaining game. A well
financed person or group might ignore the evidence and just push
the price on some claim in some direction and spend what it takes
to hold it there. This strategy pays off if other bettors can't
or won't hold out as long, and hence quit at a loss. A compromise
is to create incentives for players to "settle out of
court," so that in the absence of strategic behavior judges
are not needed. For example, we might set the official judging
date to be long after we expect the steady accumulation of
evidence to naturally resolve the issue.
Yes, betting markets are not a panacea, and will need to co-exist
with other related institutions.
"...the long-term nature of such bets' would necessarily
require a group of similarly long-term investors. After all, the
opportunity costs of such a bet would be significant, if one had
to wait five years with funds in escrow for its resolution. Even
longer-term bets would be more difficult...
I think your model is intriguing, and could solve many of the
problems with today's 'court advisor' model of futurism."
Hanson: Yes, there are problems with
long-term investments, though not the ones usually imagined.
Markets in bets that won't be officially settled for several
decades can still have liquid markets which allow investors to
enter or leave at any time, can offer as high an average rate of
return as the stock market, and can offer daily price
fluctuations similar to those in the stock market. The real
long-term investment problem is again that some investors may
think it would take the market too long time to come to its
senses and reward their wise purchase, and so they don't bother
to fight the crowd. All markets face this problem, allowing
speculative bubbles to persist. So, yes, price movements over
longer time scales may be less rational. But it's not clear that
any alternative funding or consensus institution deals with this
problem any better.
Most people react to my proposal by saying "interesting, but
here are some problems." This was my reaction too, and most
of my efforts have centered around identifying such problems and
finding ways to deal with them.
Correction: In the article I claimed that
"over the last six months alone, there is less than a one in
1010 chance of someone randomly winning [Piers
Carbyn's] 25 bets a month at his over-than-80% success
rate." The actual chance depends on how independent the bets
in a single month are, and (now using the last fifteen months of
data) is somewhere between one in 200 (total dependence) and one
in 1060 (total independence).
Hanson researches artificial intelligence and
Bayesian statistics at NASA Ames, has master's degrees in physics
and philosophy of science, and has done substantial work on
hypertext publishing. To receive his longer paper on the above
topic, send us a self-addressed stamped envelope (with 45 cents
postage within the U.S.), or send electronic mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Agorics Project is building working markets operating
entirely as object-oriented computer software, to test theories
on how markets evolve. Based at the Center for the Study
of Market Processes at George Mason University in Fairfax,
Virginia, the effort was originally inspired by a series of
three papers written by Mark S. Miller and K. Eric Drexler. A few copies of
these papers, donated by Mark Miller, are still available from
Foresight; within the U.S., please send a large, self-addressed
envelope with $2.36 postage. (Outside the U.S., try to include a
donation that will roughly cover our postage costs.) Miller now
serves as Co-director of the project, along with Prof. Don
Lavoie. Graduate students aiding the project include Howard
Baetjer, Kevin Lacobie, and Bill Tulloh. The project is now
seeking additional funds to expand its work.
Those interested in the project can read about it in the Center's
free newsletter, Praxis. Contact the Center at
703-323-3483, or online at email@example.com (BITNET) or
firstname.lastname@example.org. For the full story behind the Agorics
Project, request the Spring 1990 issue of the Center's journal Market
Process. In addition to two articles on evolutionary
economics, this issue contains an article by Phillip K. Salin on
the ecology of decisions, or how to improve our models of the
We would like to give special thanks to Russell Mills, who has
donated many, many hours of help on the design and layout of Update
and other Foresight publications. Some assistance for Russ has
been found thanks to Hilary Nelson, who did the layout on this
issue. Special thanks also go to Bob Fleming, Cheri Kushner, and
their company futheuristix for the generous donation of a Canon
copier. This will make a big difference to our office operations.
Thanks to Hank Lederer for his database searches on NEXIS. Hank
can no longer supply these, so we are looking for someone with
access to NEXIS to run periodic searches on the word nanotechnology.
Thanks also to those who volunteered to help with publication
layout; we hope to take advantage of your generous offers.
Belated thanks to Felix Frayman for help in translating from
Russian to English.
Thanks to the following for sending technical articles and media
coverage; please keep these coming: Richard Cathcart, Giri
Cherukuri, Jim Conyngham, Dick Crawford, Eric Dahlstrom, Donald
J. Fears, Jaroslav Franta, W.C. Gaines, Alan Hald, Robin Hanson,
Mark Haviland, Stan & Kiyomi Hutchings, Anthony L. Johnson,
Spencer MacCallum, Joy Martin, Tom McKendree, Anthony Oberley,
John Papiewski, Jack Powers, Alvin Steinberg, and Christian
We will need volunteers to staff the Foresight Institute booth
at the Space Development Conference. See the article in this issue
for details. We are also looking for a volunteer to prepare an
index for the proceedings of the First Foresight Conference on
From our "Thanks"
column it's clear that many readers are already sending in
articles, both technical and nontechnical. We'd like to make this
more systematic for the technical articles, with volunteers
agreeing to monitor specific journals. If you routinely look at
one or more of the following and are willing to send us copies of
relevant articles, please contact us: Angewandt Chemie,
JACS, J. Appl. Phys., Appl. Phys
Lett., Protein Engineering, J.
Computational Chemistry, J. Molecular Electronics.
As always, articles from other publications are welcome. We
already monitor Science, Nature, and Science
News. We'd also appreciate help from Japan in identifying
relevant journals and obtaining abstracts in English of key
Someone with routine access to NEXIS could help us by running
periodic searches on the word nanotechnology.
We are in need of the following materials and help: a fax machine
and a laser printer for the Macintosh. Office space in the Palo
Alto area is needed as well. Volunteers with legal or fundraising
experience are welcome. Note that donations of equipment or funds
are tax-deductible in the U.S. as charitable contributions.
If you or your company can help with any of the above, please
call us at 415-324-2490.
From Foresight Update 11, originally published 15