Foresight Institute has a special interest in
systems to improve the evolution of knowledge and to enhance the
quality of discussion and decisions on complex issues. Currently
there is no good way to carry out such discussions: paper is too
slow and inconvenient, while Internet discussions - whether they
be in the form of newsgroups, static web pages, or chat sessions
- are too unstructured.
Our Web Enhancement Project
aims at adding features to the World Wide Web needed to better
carry out critical discussion. These features have been described
in the essay "Hypertext Publishing and the Evolution of
on the web and on paper from the Foresight office.
Hyper-G has true hypertext publishing features
We had originally thought that this would require Foresight to
produce the needed software, but fortunately this has become
unnecessary by the introduction of Hyper-G by an international
team (originating, as did the web itself, in Europe). Hyper-G,
known as HyperWave in its commercial version, has almost all of
the features on our wish list for hypertext publishing, because
it was based on the early concepts of hypertext
from Ted Nelson, and also explicitly designed for structured
Bidirectional links--links that work in both
directions between linked documents. On today's web,
links work in one direction only.
Extrinsic links--links that can be made visible
without the document author's permission. Needed for
Link typing and sorting (filtering)- the ability
to label a link with a keyword describing its type (e.g.,
criticism or example) and sort for only those links to be
displayed. Needed when a document has many extrinsic
links. Annotations are an explicit link type already
coded into Hyper-G.
Fine-grained links--as on the web, links can be
made to only part of a document, even one word or one
letter. In Hyper-G, up to six links can overlap.
Links in non-ASCII documents--links can be made
and viewed in PostScript, gif, jpeg, tiff, video, VRML,
and soon audio and PDF (Acrobat) documents. This is
possible because unlike conventional HTML documents,
which encode links within the document itself, Hyper-G
supports the ability to maintain a list of links in a
database, which can be merged into the document at
display time. Links are treated as objects in their own
right, with their own attributes and permissions
Fine-grained access control--for each document,
one can specify who can see the document, who can see
each link, who can edit the document itself, and who can
edit the links.
Advanced structuring facilities for documents,
including graphical and even 3D visualization of the
Sophisticated search abilities, including the
ability to search Postscript document contents (i.e.,
special Hyper-G tools can "read" PostScript
document contents and make a full text index of them). A
search engine is built into the server, which cooperates
with a more lightweight search ability on the Hyper-G
Compatibility with the existing web--Hyper-G
documents can be viewed using standard web browsers.
Hyper-G client software is available for UNIX, Windows NT,
Windows 95, and is in preparation for the Macintosh. A
line-oriented terminal version of the client is also available.
However, the UNIX client is the most advanced, and can be run
under the operating system Linux on Wintel
machines, as Foresight plans to do.
Partly because they include commerically-useful features such as
subscriptions and licensing, Hyper-G or Hyper-G spinoffs are
already in use at publishing companies such as Springer, Academic
Press, Wiley, and Oxford University Press. It is also used
extensively by the European Space Agency.
Foresight can experiment with Hyper-G without betting on its
long-term success as a standard. The goal is to use the basic
capabilities of second-generation hypertext publishing systems by
building information structures with real content. This content
could later be transferred to another system that provides the
same basic capabilities. Foresight hopes to show the usefulness
of the advanced hypertext publishing features listed above: we
may be instrumental in spreading these back into the World Wide
Web as a whole. Thus, our efforts don't depend on Hyper-G and
HyperWave commercial success, but on how well we demonstrate the
Computer security debate
Our first experimental debate will be in the field of computer
security, specifically language and operating system security:
how can we maximize cooperation without vulnerability? We will
start by examining Java-style languages. This topic has several
advantages for an initial debate:
It is important to the safe and widespread deployment of
nanotechnology, i.e. it is critical to our shared future.
It is already of great current interest for commercial
It will be debated by those familiar with computer
technology: early adopters who already use the web and
may be willing to install the Hyper-G client software so
they can participate actively in the debate.
It is complex enough to demonstrate the usefulness of our
target feature set for debating complex issues.
It is relatively theorem-like: propositions can be
clearly stated--"Given these assumptions, this
security violation is impossible"--which can then be
tested and possibly disproved either theoretically or
experimentally. Thus, while the topic is complex, it is
not as messy as human systems. Our first debate should be
one in which actual progress is possible.
The funds for Foresight's Hyper-G server were raised at this year's Senior
Associates Gathering. This machine has now arrived and is
being configured by Russell
Whitaker, technical leader of the project. We will be putting
in a skeleton argumentation structure, and then inviting specific
security experts to join the debate one by one. The reason for
this controlled build-up of participants is that we expect to
encounter glitches in the process which will have to be solved
using social rules, rather than the procedures we can enforce
using the software. We will also have to evolve filtering
Once it's clear that the debate software is working well, and we
are being successful at adding needed social rules, we will open
up access to the debate first to Senior Associates, later to
Foresight members and some relevant professional groups, and
eventually to the general public.
This computer security debate is only the first of many Foresight
plans to conduct on advanced technologies of public policy
importance. We hope that the debate procedures we evolve can be
of use to those debating other topics as well-including
"messy" human issues.
Hyper-G information sources
Those interested in assisting the project at this stage can
start to familiarize themselves with the software by reading the
book HyperWave: The Next-Generation Web Solution(by Hermann Maurer, Addison Wesley, 1996; available free online
and by installing the client software available
free online (ftp://ftp.ncsa.uiuc.edu/Hyper-G or
In addition, funds are needed immediately to pay for
Foresight's client machine, about $3,900
people's time in organizing the project, tech support to
targeted experts, and uploading reference documents
$500 membership fee for Foresight to join the Hyper-G
Consortium, and thereby become eligible for R&D
grants from the Consortium; and eventually
our own connection to the Internet when we outgrow our
shared high-speed (T1) connection..
In the longer term, we invite all Foresight members-and
eventually all web users- to join us in debate online. We
believe that full hypertext publishing capabilities are a
breakthrough equal in importance to the invention of the library.
No other tool is sufficient to deal with the complex problems to
be solved in successfully implementing nanotechnology and the
other advanced technologies now on the horizon.
For project updates, visit our web site. Donations may be
discussed with Chris Peterson at email@example.com or tel
415-917-1122, or mailed to Foresight Institute, PO Box 61058,
Palo Alto, CA 94306 USA, and are tax-deductible in the U.S.
Special thanks to Russell Whitaker for technical leadership;
and to those who donated funds for the server machine: Hughgie
Barron, Ken Blakeslee, Steve Burgess, Warren Freeman, Dan
Fylstra, Jim Lewis, David Lindbergh, Joy Martin, Chris Portman,
Gary Pullar, Dick Smith, and J. Tory.
Donor Pledges $40,000 Matching Grant For New Senior Associates
and Increased Donations
A generous anonymous donor has pledged up to $40,000 in
matching grants for new Foresight Senior Associates and increased
donations by current Senior Associates.
The donor has provided a $5000 matching grant for every ten
new Senior Associates Foresight can obtain between now and the
end of January 1997, up to a $40,000 maximum. It will also apply
to upgrades on any Senior Associate memberships, and to any
one-time donation of cash or stock of $100 or more. (Stock
donations may provide special tax benefits if your basis is lower
than the current market value of the stock; consult your tax
advisor for details.)
This means that every new Foresight Senior Associate dollar
donated between now and the end of January, 1997 the organization
will get two more immediately. You can make your new donation
dollars go three times as far as they otherwise would!
Call Foresight Institute with your new or increased donations
at 415-917-1122, fax your pledge to 415-917-1123. Or email
firstname.lastname@example.org. Your donation will make a big
difference--three times what you give.
Check our World Wide Web site for progress toward the
The deadline to qualify for this two-for-one matching grant is
January 31, 1997.
For fun, participants marked their name badges with guesstimates
of when the Feynman Grand Prize
will be awarded. Estimates ranged roughly from five to fifty
years, and in precision from decade bandwidth to single-day
Foresight Chairman Eric Drexler opened the proceedings
with a discussion of "Where we've been, and where we're
"Just 100 years ago people were arguing whether atoms
existed. Decades later the idea of macromolecules (such as
protein) was still controversial. By the time of the 1959 Feynman
talk, people were working 'top down' and others began to work
on molecular stuff in biology. That meant, in effect, that we had
biologists studying machines. They were not looking at things
from an engineering point of view. To consider the consequences
of that, imagine aeronautics if airplane design had remained a
sub-branch of ornithology," he suggested.
"The 1970s tossed out much of our vision of the
future--space expansion, intelligent machines, etc.-- and brought
a new focus on Limits to Growth. Despite mankind's long
history of things getting better and resources getting cheaper,
thinkers in the 1970s were advocating a contrary direction."
Meanwhile, Drexler had begun to think about programmable
molecular machines as an answer to such negative thinking. That
culminated with the publication, ten years ago, of Engines of Creation.
The book had unintended consequences, Drexler admitted. "I
made a big strategic mistake in assuming that the science
community would understand non-mathematical description and
discussion. Scientists simply could not accept it. So eventually
I wrote Nanosystems
with a different heuristic--it had to have lots of math, be
heavy, and look like a textbook. It also had to be useful to
somebody entering the field, and intimidating to potential
critics," he quipped.
Looking ahead, Drexler said, "Today; we as a society are
confused about matter, space, time, and mind. Matter: people say
we're running out of resources, but nanotechnology changes that.
Space: people say we're running out of space, but space
exploration removes that limit. Time: we're all supposed to be
dying, but with nanotechnology we'll be able to keep youthful
physiologies. Memory is mainly structure, and we can maintain it.
Mind: with nanotechnology we can make machine intelligence
systems a million times faster than our brains."
"We'll have an infinite supply of people who are willing to
say it can't be done, right up to the day it happens," he
said. "So we can spend all our time between now and the
technological singularity arguing with the ignorant, or we can
talk with people who do understand and move things along."
Among the many other speakers at the gathering:
Al Globus described the impressive and growing team at
NASA's Ames Research Center devoted to computational
nanotechnology (see the article in Update
26). "NASA has a goal of eventual establishment
of permanent, self sufficient settlements in space," he
said. This opens new possibilities for molecular manipulation.
Chemists have added a wide range of molecular fragments to
buckyballs. This would add chemical functionality to the
excellent physical characteristics already demonstrated.
Jim Lewis and Ted Kaehler discussed current
interesting research work. Kaehler described Bruce Smith's
proposal to assemble three-dimensional arrays of proteins
attached covalently. "How do we get them to find each other
in a pool of water and get them to attach?" Kaehler asked.
"One proposal is to attach single stranded DNA to each cubic
protein molecule, then dump in another batch with complementary
DNA. This has the effect of pressing these things together; there
is a clear path to making this happen."
Jim Lewis described Richard Smalley's new nanotube probe tip,
a multiwall carbon tube about 5 nm in diameter. "And now
they're talking about a single wall nanotube glued on to the end
of that," he said. This opens new possibilities for
molecular manipulation. Chemists have added a wide range of
molecular fragments to buckyballs. This would add chemical
functionality to the excellent physical characteristics already
Computational nanotechnologist Ralph Merkle of Xerox Palo
Alto Research Center provided a fascinating historical tour of
proposals in the early 1800s for mechanical computers.
"Babbage even considered binary, but rejected it. Another
guy named Fowler designed a digital machine whose active elements
were sliding rods that could be in one of three positions, so it
required less precision than Babbage's [decimal] design. There
was this entire group of people swapping ideas about mechanical
computers, and they just vanished from history. By 1850
electrical relays were in use. What would have happened if anyone
in that group used relays? Did we miss getting started with
computers by a century?" (The concept of mechanical rod
logic computers at the molecular scale was first advanced by
Drexler in Engines of Creation.)
"I conclude that the march of history depends very much upon
individuals-- people who put ideas together," he said.
Public relations consultant and Update Editor Lew
Phelps presented an analysis of the Scientific American
debate conducted on
the World Wide Web. "This is the first known example of
anyone using the Web to successfully rebut an erroneous article
in a major print publication," he said. "We'll see more
of this in the future. You no longer need to own a printing press
to have a public voice." A related discussion by public
relations consultant Ed Niehaus and author Gayle
Pergamit on communicating nanotechnology concepts led to a
lively group discussion sharing concepts and experiences related
to communication matters.
Resources for nanotechnology research continue to emerge. Among
those discussed, Foresight Webmaster Jim Lewis provided a tour of
the nanotechnology-related sites on the World Wide Web. Richard
Terra discussed his forthcoming "State of the
Field" Report on Nanotechnology. Russell Whitaker
described encouraging developments supporting Foresight's Web
Enhancement goals. (For details on the latter, see Chris Peterson's column.)