For many months Xerox
Palo Alto Research Center computer scientist Ralph Merkle and Foresight
president Eric Drexler have
been developing computational experiments involving simple
nanomechanical systems, specifically bearings and gears. These
components are made mainly of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur,
and hydrogen. The primary tools used have been the
Polygen/Molecular Simulations molecular mechanics package Polygraf,
running on a Silicon Graphics workstation. (Autodesk's Hyperchem
software can also handle nanomechanical structures of this size.)
While the resulting static models were impressive to technical
and nontechnical observers alike, a frequent question was
"Can you show it moving?" Now, thanks to Ralph Merkle
and the top-notch A/V staff at PARC, the models have been made
into an animated sequence showing how they will move, as
predicted by today's computational chemistry software. The
resulting video was immediately helpful in explaining
nanotechnology to audiences from the academic (Stanford,
University of San Francisco, University of Southern California)
to the popular ("Good Morning America" television
Lectures given recently include: U.S. Senate Subcommittee on
Science, Technology, and Space, White House Office of Science and
Technology Policy, International Space Development Conference,
Goddard Space Flight Center Colloquium, Stanford Mechanical
Engineering Seminar, Mitsubishi Research Institute (Japan),
International Bionic Design Workshop session on molecular
machines (Japan); by Eric Drexler. Lectures by Ralph Merkle
included the U.S. Naval Research Lab, National Science
Foundation, Universal Expo '92 in Seville, National Institute of
Standards & Technology, Professional and Technical
Consultants Association, and MIT Nanotechnology Study Group.
Nanotechnology mentions in the media in recent months have
included "Good Morning America" (June 11), Longevity
magazine (April), U.S. News & World Report
(March 9), San Francisco Examiner (March 8), Der
Spiegel (March), Xerox's Consultant Update
(February), Nature (Jan. 23), Manufacturing
C. Bennett (pictured at left in launch test gear) is one of the
founders of the Foresight Institute and serves on the Board of
Directors. He was interviewed by Jamie Dinkelacker in Palo Alto
on April 23, 1992.
JWD: Could you begin by telling me how your involvement with
Foresight Institute came about?
JCB: I've been a friend and associate of Eric Drexler's and Chris
Peterson's for a long time. We were all involved in the L5
Society, which later became the National Space Society, an
organization devoted to education and advocacy of space
development. I've known Eric since about 1977 or 1978 through
that activity and the Princeton Conferences, a biennial space
development conference series.
When we would meet, I would ask Eric what he'd been doing. One
year, I believe it was 1981, he said, "Well, I've been
thinking about machines, very small machines--very, very small
machines." I said that it didn't sound as if it was directly
related to space, "but why don't you tell me about it."
He began unfolding his vision of molecular machinery, using
individual molecules as building blocks, and after thinking about
it, I decided that this was such a potentially high-payoff
concept--and also such a high-hazard concept, if things were to
go wrong--that it justified spending a substantial amount of time
working on it.
JWD: How would you describe the role that you play in Foresight?
JCB: I'm one of the Directors of the Foresight Institute. The
Board is concerned with high-level strategy and oversight of the
Institute's activities. As such, I think both about the future of
nanotechnology and the future of the Foresight Institute as an
organization dedicated to educating people about nanotechnology
and stimulating discussion about nanotechnology and its
In the course of thinking about how nanotechnology may come
about, I try to envision scenarios drawing on my own experiences
with emerging technologies and the reaction to them by society
and government, and come up with ideas on what to do next, and
where we should be headed. Each of the people involved in
Foresight does this but from his or her own perspective.
JWD: What are some of your hopes and aspirations for Foresight?
JCB: I would like to see Foresight be the focal point of
discussion and thinking about nanotechnology and its consequences
for society, for technologies of all types and all regards. I
would like us to be the center of expertise that people naturally
turn to for information, for advice, and for a place to find
meaningful discussion about it.
JWD: What do you see as some of the short-term and the long-term
goals of Foresight Institute?
JCB: The short term goals of Foresight Institute are: first, to
increase awareness of nanotechnology; and second, to develop the
reputation of the Institute as the focal point, as the center of
expertise to make people aware, as they become aware of
nanotechnology, that Foresight is a place that they can turn to
for information and answers.
In the long term, the goal of Foresight is to create an
environment for discussion in which the consequences of this
technology and the precautions that one could take in
anticipation of those consequences can be discussed in an
intelligent and calm fashion.
JWD: What is it about nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing
that interests you most?
JCB: There are so many different consequences, it's hard to
single one out. The single most interesting thing about it is the
increase in the ability of humankind to control its physical
environment, in all the aspects external and internal to humans,
to a much greater extent than before. And this has the promise of
cutting out so must waste, eliminating so many of the bad
consequences of the inadequate technologies that we are forced to
work with today.
JWD: What do you see as some of these key areas of daily life
that will be affected by nanotechnology?
JCB: I would say the economy, health, and ultimately the range of
human capabilities. Given full realization of nanotechnological
capabilities, all of these will be drastically changed: the
economy by making very high-level goods and services available
without the necessary large expenditure of energy and huge amount
of bulk raw materials that are required today to produce a
fraction of that capability; in health by intervening precisely
in the medical process at the molecular level instead of the
crude interventions from which we have to suffer today; and
ultimately, in terms of human capabilities, I think the great
advances in computation, advances in better materials and
physical abilities mean that average individuals will be able to
do more things; they will be empowered orders of magnitude above
JWD: Please mention a bit about your educational background.
JCB: I was educated at the University of Michigan. My primary
concentration was in anthropology with a minor concentration in
political science. I started out intending to study political
science, and then go to law school, but after beginning that
study I became dissatisfied because the political science
department, and most of the other disciplines at the University
and in academia at that time were concerned with very narrow,
very mechanical kinds of questions. I was interested in the broad
scope of human interactions with their environment--a very wide
range of human questions--and, of the disciplines, only
anthropology attempted an overview and still attempted to create
an integrating vision. I found this lacking almost every place
else. So, I switched to anthropology even though I never had any
intention of being a professional anthropologist, and I've never
JWD: Could you say a bit about your professional background.
JCB: After spending some time in environmental and technology
assessment work, I became very interested in the question of
space development. I became convinced that the development of
commercial approaches to space transportation was an important
effort that needed to be undertaken. I became involved with a
group of people, co-founders of a number of private rocket
companies; the first was Arc Technologies and the second was the
American Rocket Company, which still exists today.
With the first one I served as Vice President for Governmental
Relations, and I spent a lot of time on the groundwork of law and
regulations concerning the operation of rockets and spacecraft on
a private basis, which was an entirely new and unanticipated
development at the time. In the second company, during the last
half of the '80s, I began as Vice President for External
Relations, which included government affairs and policy work. I
continued the work of trying to mesh this new creature of private
space transportation with the existing institutions--the Air
Force bases you had to launch from, how you would relate to NASA,
how you would relate to the military, and how you would relate to
regulatory agencies like the Department of Transportation.
In 1989, my business partner and cofounder of American Rocket,
George Koopman, was tragically killed in an automobile accident,
and I became acting President of the company and saw it through
its first major test event and the consequences of that. After a
period of time I decided that I wanted to spend more time on a
variety of issues, including nanotechnology and molecular
manufacturing, and I became a consultant to American Rocket and
left full-time employment with them. I'm now interested in both
maintaining active work with space and spending more time on the
newer questions coming up.
JWD: Could you say some more about your involvement with the
space community in general?
JCB: I was involved in the space development community before I
ever became involved professionally with space. I became
interested in the mid-'70s, particularly in the concepts of
development and settlement of space, industrialization, and such.
I followed the work of Dr. O'Neill at Princeton and a number of
other people. I became involved in the L5 Society, which was one
of the precursors of the National Space Society. I started
attending the Princeton Conferences, joined the American
Institute of Astronautics and Aeronautics, and became familiar
with what you would call the "space advocacy
community," which is both full-time professionals and
interested non-professionals who are working out these ideas. It
was particularly in the late '70s and early '80s--a very exciting
time--that a lot of programs and new ideas, different approaches
and suggestions, were developed and in some cases tried out. I've
remained in that community ever since. As I became more
professionally involved, I started spending the bulk of my time
on the commercial rather than the voluntary sector, however. I'm
still quite involved in the National Space Society as a member of
the Legislative Committee, and I intend to stay involved.
JWD: You've recently become quite
involved with CCIT--the Center for Constitutional Issues in
Technology. Please fill us in on what that's about.
JCB: The Foresight Institute was founded with the intention to
improve public awareness, education, and information about
nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing. Part of the purpose
of that was to spur debate and discussion. As this field expands,
it needs to create specific foci in a number of different areas:
one of those is public policy. The Center for Constitutional
Issues in Technology was formed as a member of the Foresight
family in order to provide a specific focus for research,
thinking, discussion, and ultimately advocacy in the area of
Right now, CCIT is still going through its start-up phase. We are
beginning to define a number of research projects which we feel
will provide the first open discussion of policy questions in
regard to upcoming issues spurred by the emergence of molecular
manufacturing as a precursor to developments.
JWD: Please characterize the Nanometrics
JCB: The Nanometrics project is conceived as an
examination of one of the very first issues that will arise as
practical consequences of molecular manufacturing in regard to
the governmental role. "Nanometrics" is a shorthand
name for a project to examine the role of who sets standards and
standards of practice in the development of new technologies. It
will look at previous historical examples, examine the role that
standards have played in aviation, in electronics, optics,
space--a number of the important emerging fields in the past
thirty to fifty years--and look at different approaches to the
emergence of standards as molecular manufacturing unfolds,
examining particularly what may be appropriate and inappropriate
roles for government agencies in these areas.
JWD: If we could turn a leaf, what are some of your primary,
JCB: My primary personal interests are travel, music, reading
very widely but specifically in history and anthropology, and a
wide range of fiction.
JWD: What are some of the materials you read regularly?
JCB: In addition to a wide range of both the general press and
specific press in space and science, I try to keep up with
current thinking in anthropological theory, I try to read in a
wide range of historical areas because I feel that experience in
the past is always relevant to what happens in the future. I read
a lot of science fiction and I try to read a reasonable amount of
mainstream fiction as well.
JWD: What do you do for fun?
JCB: Meet and talk with friends, travel to new places, go for
walks--preferably in the mountains--and listen to music.
JWD: From your perspective, what can people do to best prepare
themselves for a world formed by nanotechnology?
JCB: The single best thing they can do at this point is to get as
wide a range of information as possible. If you have no
background whatsoever in science, try to understand what are the
basic building blocks that you have to work with, the basic
forces you have to take into account. If you're interested in the
policy areas, educate yourself about what's happened in the past
when the government has interacted with new and emerging
In a personal and professional sense, you have to expect that you
will have to be flexible. Whatever your life has been to date, if
it's been very much devoted to doing one thing in one fashion,
you had better learn to do a number of things in different
fashions. If you've been the sort of person who's tried to have a
lot of different things in your life, then you're going to be
better prepared. Anything you can do to stretch your
JWD: Why should people contribute time and money to Foresight?
JCB: If there's any potential for nanotechnology to come to
be--and I think there's an excellent chance that it will--it's
going to be a major factor affecting the conduct of our daily
lives. It's important for anyone who cares what's going to happen
or how it might affect you to pay attention to this, to gather
information, to get involved, and try to have an effect on the
outcome. Foresight is the single best place to gather
information. I believe that it's the single best place to put
your energies, and I'm speaking here of the whole Foresight
family of organizations, depending on what your particular
interests are. I think that as we've grown--we've been in formal
existence since 1986--we've attracted more and more people to the
cooperating network, and I've been impressed by the high quality
of thinking and action that these people have shown. Every day
seems to bring new, good people into our network. I think that we
already have such a head start, largely because of that inflow of
good people. Foresight will be the most effective place for you
to both learn and to do.
JWD: Is there anything in closing that you would like to
communicate to the readers of Foresight Update?
JCB: First of all, you've come to the right place. I'd only
encourage you to keep trying to find out more and if you have any
thing to contribute, particularly in terms of thinking, but any
other type of energy or resource that you can help bring to this,
you're welcome to bring it and we look forward to working with
Allow me to bring you up to date regarding recent developments
at Foresight. Once again, l invite you to contact me personally,
preferably via email or letter, about your thoughts on Foresight
and our mission to help society prepare for nanotechnology.
Foresight has refined its identifying message to
"Preparing for nanotechnology." This is a more focused
statement of our current mission than the previous
"Preparing for future technologies."
Membership Information Forms
A reminder: Foresight has developed an updated membership
information form and general survey about your interests in
nanotechnology. If you have not filled these out recently, please
contact Foresight and request a set. These materials will aid us
in better serving the interests and needs of the Foresight
Call for Essays
We've had some response to our call for essays. Once again, we
invite all Foresight supporters to submit essays on issues of
nanotechnology that are particularly relevant from an individual,
personal perspective. Please limit your essays to not more than
five thousand words and send three printed copies. Keep your own
copy in machine readable form. If sufficient interest is shown in
the essay program, we will establish a review forum and gather a
selected set of essays together for a future issue of either the Update
or Briefing series.
We have undertaken a significant transformation from our
earlier database and record keeping system into a new one in Filemaker
Pro. Although this promises a significantly improved
ability to respond to our supporters and individuals who contact
Foresight for information about nanotechnology, we may have a few
glitches along the way. So, if perhaps one or two times it
happens that we have asked you to renew your membership shortly
after you have sent us a check, please bear with us. These items
will be straightened out in the near future and we will improve
our ability to give quicker responses to everyone who contacts
You may have recently received a package of materials from
Foresight that brought you up-to-date with the Foresight
Background series. This derives from a change in our
publication policy. Previously, each time that an Update
was issued, the next Background in the sequence was
included in your mailing. As you might guess, this created
significant record keeping overhead as well as a noticeable labor
and mailing burden. What we have done is brought all members
current with the Background series who were part of
Foresight through the end of calendar year 1991. People who have
joined in the Foresight effort since then will see the completed
set of the Foresight Backgrounds in a few months.
Our current plans call for this collection of material to be sent
to new supporters several months after they have joined, when
they have had an opportunity to digest the initial materials
received as part of the new membership packet.
A recent review of the Foresight database shows that we have
contacts interested in nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing
in forty-nine nations. These figures are a bit rough because
certain modifications still need to be updated, such as national
assignment for people living in areas such as the former Soviet
Union or Yugoslavia. In other words, inquiries about
nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing--as well as about Engines of Creation
the Future--suggest an increased global interest in
the onset of these exciting technologies.
Foresight could benefit from both financial donations and
in-kind contributions such as office space, office support, and
business machines. Two items, in particular, would be a great
help to the Foresight effort. We would welcome donation of a
plain paper fax machine to help handle the large number of fax
messages received by Foresight. Also, we would benefit from a
donation of neural network software, preferably Mac-based, but PC
software would be fine. Naturally, we ask that it be donated in
the original shrinkwrap with its manuals. The software would help
us profile supporters and people who contact us such that we can
better tailor our responses and materials for them.
In our last issue we reported the loss of Phillip Salin, a
long-time friend and advisor of the Foresight organizations, to
stomach cancer. The family had requested that memorial donations
be made to the Institute for
Molecular Manufacturing. A generous gift has been received
from Autodesk, Inc.,
of Sausalito, California, the parent company of Salin's American
Information Exchange Corporation. Another significant memorial
gift was received from the Electronic
Frontier Foundation, an organization promoting electronic
freedom of speech and other issues arising on the electronic
frontier. IMM's Executive Director Kathleen Shatter stated that
"We at IMM will use these memorial gifts to further
nanotechnology research, the future medical applications of which
will enable physicians to save patients such as Phil Salin, whose
loss at age 41 is tragic for the Foresight community."
Foresight president K. Eric Drexler has made the entire text
of Engines of Creation available online, in ASCII
form, through the American Information Exchange for the price of
US$10. For more information, contact AMIX at 415-903-1000; write
to 1881 Landings Drive, Mountain View, CA 94043; or email to