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Foresight Update 30

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

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Physics Nobel Laureate Briefs
National Science Foundation on Nanotechnology

by Richard H. Smith, II

The National Science Foundation began its Distinguished Lecture Series June 16 at its headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, with a presentation by Nobel Laureate, Dr. Heinrich Rohrer. In the words of Ken Chong, NSF Director for Structural Systems, Construction Processes, Mechanics and Materials, this series of lectures was designed to "provide cross-fertilization and to convey different ideas." Bert Marsh, Acting Assistant Director for Engineering, introduced Dr. Rohrer, stating that "all of us are interested in the new field of nanotechnology." In the standing-room only audience were over 125 interested participants, most wearing NSF name badges.

When the talk was advertised, the official title was "The Nanometer Age, Challenges and Choices," but Dr. Rohrer said he should have called it "Nanotechnology - Nature's Way." The abstract read as follows:

"The more conventional aspect of science and technology on the nanometer (nm) scale is seen in advancing observation and precision standards down to the atomic level and in continued miniaturization from today's microtechnology to tomorrow's nanotechnology. There is lots of room at the bottom of the scale, even now, 35 years after R. Feynman's famous lecture on reducing the size of computers until bits are of the size of atoms. A more adventurous approach to the nanoworld is the assembly-scenario, where molecules and macromolecules serve as building blocks to form complex functional units.

Miniaturization and assembly together should provide possibilities and new ways of solving problems, namely, the elegant way nature solves them. Crucial will be our ability to handle nano-objects on an individual basis and to interface them to the macroscopic world for communication and control."

Dr. Rohrer's presentation was centered around the physical possibilities based on current technical capabilities and highly probable trends. In the 45-minute talk, he discussed the continuing trend in microminiaturization and "new possibilities and paradigms." He suggested that the end of microminiaturization possibilities is in sight (at the kT boundary) but that industry will not allow progress to cease—"we need something to replace microminiaturization." He gave the worldwide energy consumption cost for computer storage alone ($700B/yr) as an example of the economic forces driving the need to make things smaller. He envisions a time in the near future when we can store 300 gigabits/cm2.

Dr. Rohrer described molecules as "perfect bottom-up building blocks" that can be used as "pre-fab construction units." He suggested that the big challenges for science and technology will be "how to interface to the molecular world", "how to create patterns for self-assembly", and "how to get nano-tools to control themselves."

With solid state technology (transistors) getting smaller and simpler and chemistry producing more complex approaches, the fields are beginning to overlap. In Dr. Rohrer's view, the basic tools of the nanotechnology trade are beam methods such as microscopy, lithography, and machining; local probes like scanning tunneling microscopes and atomic force microscopes; computational methods (the theory of the nanoscale); and nano-materials. He thinks that local probes are the key because they can be used both as "nano-fingers" with which to manipulate molecules and "imagers" which allow us to see what we have done. Citing Smalley, Eigler, and Gimzewski (of nano-abacus fame) as leaders in the field, Dr. Rohrer said, "You just have to find how nature works and then let nature work." He suggested that understanding nature would help but that it wasn't necessary.

Dr. Rohrer suggested that from now on, we will be required to look at concepts such as molecular self-assembly, the solid/liquid interface, the nano/macro interface, and distributed mechanical/chemical/electronic processing. He concluded his prepared remarks with the notion that the old paradigm was for things to be "smaller, faster, and cheaper" while tomorrow's will be "smarter, smarter, and smarter."

He addressed questions about the possibility of storing more than one bit per atom (yes), petaflop computing (maybe, but perhaps sufficient parallelism renders the question moot), and a 50-pound Volkswagen (was Ralph Merkle in the room?). He answered by waxing philosophical about a future that is never an extrapolation of the present. "Yes", he says, "things will be harder and lighter and faster and cheaper and smarter." But to try to predict what the future holds is less valuable than the process of getting there—we learn in and from the process. Much of science comes not from learning what we expected to learn, but from learning something totally unexpected. It isn't the experiment or the topic that is ultimately important, it is the people doing the science."

A final question came from Mike Roco, Program Director of the Chemical and Transport Systems Division, who asked if the "$65 million per year spent by NSF on nanotechnology research" would ever pay for itself. Dr. Rohrer responded that one could never have made a case for microtechnology based on what it might mean to the space program. "Who knew?" The benefits are now patently obvious but "remember, it took 17 years to replace radio tubes with transistors in only half of the devices where they could have been used." The benefits of nanotechnology will become self-obvious as well, he said.

Dr. Rohrer, who received his PhD in experimental physics in 1960 from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich with a thesis on superconductivity, won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1986 for his invention with Gerd Binnig of the scanning tunneling microscope. He has worked since 1963 at IBM's Zurich Research Laboratory. After a two-year postdoctorate at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, he joined IBM's Zurich Research Laboratory in 1963 as Research Staff Member. His research interests include Kondo microelectronics systems, phase transitions, multicritical phenomena, and scanning tunneling microscopy. He spent a sabbatical at the University of California in Santa Barbara, California in 1974-75. In 1987, he was awarded the Cresson Medal of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. The practical value of the invention was recognized by his induction to the US National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1994.

Richard Smith is a Foresight Senior Associate. He is Director of Planning and Research Administration for Georgetown University.

Foresight Update 30 - Table of Contents


Nanotechnology Conference Emerging As Biggest,
Most Significant Ever

by Lew Phelps

The Fifth Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology is "clearly going to be the most scientifically significant and best attended event in Foresight Institute's history," says Ralph Merkle, cochair of the event.

The conference is jointly chaired by Merkle, of Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, and Al Globus of MJR Inc./NASA, two leading researchers in the field of nanotechnolology.

Concurrent with the Conference, Foresight will hold a first-ever "Tutorial on Critical Enabling Technologies for Nanotechnology," organized by Deepak Srivastava of NAS/NASA.

The conference will be held November 6-8 at the Hyatt Hotel in Palo Alto, CA. The Tutorial will be held Nov. 5 at the same facility. Attendance for both events will be limited by facility capacity, so early registration is advised.

For those with long planning horizons, Foresight also has announced plans to hold Molecular Nanotechnology conferences annually beginning in 1998. The Sixth Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology will be held on November 13-15, 1998, at the Westin Hotel in Santa Clara, CA. The Tutorial will be on November 12. The 1998 event will be cochaired by Globus and Srivastava of NASA.

The Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology is a 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.

As reported in the previous issue of Update, scheduled speakers comprise the nation's leading nanotechnology researchers, including Nobel Laureate Richard E. Smalley, head of the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology at Rice University, who will deliver the keynote address. A full list of invited speakers is available on the World Wide Web.

In addition to 14 invited speakers, 35 additional speakers have been selected from among 99 abstracts submitted for consideration, Merkle says. Indication of the scientific fervor expected at the conference comes from abstracts submitted before Update's press deadline by some of the scheduled speakers:

  • James K. Gimzewski of IBM Research Division, Zurich Research Laboratory, will discuss (i) scanning tunneling microscopy (STM) to manipulate molecules on an individual basis; (ii) observation and manipulation of bistable molecular conformations as switches (with potential information storage implications), and (iii) the control of the diffusion barriers of single molecules, which introduces certain new elements within the concept of directed self-assembly.
  • Phaedon Avouris of the IBM Research Division will discuss the use of the STM and atomic force microscopy (AFM) to induce controlled local modifications of the structure and composition of surfaces and the fabrication of nanostructures.
  • Rodney S. Ruoff of the Washington University (St. Louis) Laboratory for the Study of Novel Carbon Materials, will present an overview of research on (i) fabrication of periodic carbon nanotube arrays, (ii) nanostressing stage design and development, and (iii) a novel form of mechanosynthesis.
  • Globus will discuss recent advances in fullerene science and technology suggesting that it may be possible to design and build atomically precise programmable machines composed largely of functionalized fullerenes. Large numbers of such machines with appropriate interconnections could conceivably create a material able to react to the environment and repair itself. (Human skin is an existing example of such material.) He will review experimental and theoretical work relating to these materials, including fullerene gears and high density memory recently designed and simulated by him and his NASA colleagues.

Five corporate sponsors have now committed financial support for the conference:

  • AMP Inc.—the world leader in the design and manufacture of electrical and electronic connectors and interconnection systems.
  • Apple Computer—the technology-leading computer hardware and software company. Apple has been a sponsor of previous conferences.
  • Ford Motor Co.—the world's second largest maker of autos and trucks, with other interests including plastics and electronics.
  • JEOL Inc.—the Japan-based maker of electron microscopes, mass spectrometers, and other precision electronic equipment.
  • Zyvex—the first research and development company focused on developing an assembler for molecular nanotechnology.

Proceedings of the conference will be published in a special edition of the journal Nanotechnology.

Please refer to the conference brochure for registration information. For more information, including Web links to all speakers and registration forms are available online, or from Foresight Institute at 650.917.1122.

Foresight Update 30 - Table of Contents


Inside Foresight

by Chris Peterson

Chris Peterson Before reading this column, flip to the back page of your newsletter—or if you're reading on the web, go to the Upcoming Events calendar—and look over the long list of nanotechnology-relevant meetings we're tracking.

Meetings per se do not prove that the field is making good progress, but if you're on the web, take a look at the programs for these meetings. As I did this, the thought kept recurring: "things are moving fast." See whether this happens to you, too.

I'm betting that it will. There's a lot happening on the technical front, and not just media hype and speculation, though there is plenty of that as well. But it's clear that nanotechnology is starting to move into the "Moore's Law"-like expectation pattern: technical people are beginning to agree that it's only a matter of time. And by using Moore's Law itself, you can even project a credible date of arrival, around 2015. Estimates of that date depend on who's guessing, but the median guess has dropped fast over the past three years.

Here it comes

What is to be done? I've been trying this analogy: to me it feels as though there's a freight train far off, but heading straight this way. People far and wide are starting to look up, see the speck on the horizon, and hear the first faint noise of its coming. More and more of them see that the choice is to jump on the train, or get left behind. So they're starting to run toward the tracks.

As supporters of Foresight and IMM, we're already next to the tracks—sometimes, it feels as though we at the main office are actually on the tracks, as more activity funnels through our organizations, and more attention focuses on the principals as individuals. When that happens—especially personal media focus—the urge we feel as technologists is to withdraw. But we're fighting this urge, and I hope that you as members will fight it as well, if and when it hits you.

Sooner or later, your colleagues will realize that your interest in this topic has put you ahead of the crowd, and will ask for your views and recommendations. For example, we at the Foresight office get frequent requests for advice that could be labeled "Business Opportunities of the Singularity," to use a term from Vernor Vinge's fiction to describe a time of drastic change. Such advice is impossible to give, but there's a bright side to the question: people are starting to grapple with the coming changes in terms of foresighted action.

Recently Foresight Chairman Eric Drexler addressed the annual meeting of the American Bar Association in a session examining foreseeable major technological changes. One phrase that kept recurring was "Feel the fear"—an acknowledgement that the changes coming are so large that it's hard to think about them clearly and calmly. But they are at least starting to try.

Foresight crosses the pond

Diligent insistence by Philippe Van Nedervelde in Belgium, supported by effective action on the part of Christopher Portman, has resulted in Foresight leasing office space in the Mayfair district of London, just north of Marble Arch in Hyde Park. It's clear that we need more interaction with people outside "the States," and London is a natural crossroads—a Schelling point for international organizations. With this new facility, and Philippe in Brussels—home of the European Union—Foresight will be in position to make a name in Europe.

We're not ready for visitors; to my knowledge there isn't even any office furniture there yet. But we're looking forward to building a strong European team. Next on the agenda: Asia.

New tools for foresight

Thinking clearly about complex issues is hard at best, and harder yet when we're expecting deep transformations in such life-and-death fields as medicine and defense. That's why we've been working on social software, as outlined in Engines of Creation.

In the last Update, I described progress on Foresight's Web Enhancement Project, saying that things were moving fast. In fact, by the time you received the paper version of that newsletter, this news was obsolete. I wrote about our efforts to redirect after finding out about some flaws in the commercial software HyperWave. Since then, Dave Forrest has succeeded at convincing the company that they should implement fine-grained linking and give Foresight a special deal on our license.

But that's not why my column was obsolete. Even before Dave's success, University of Waterloo student Ka-Ping Yee had coded a backlink mediator program for us. It works like this: readers log into Foresight's server and request a particular URL; our server pulls in the original text, folds in comments by others (backlinks), then sends the enriched document to the readers. It looks like the original text, but with the live backlinks displayed as small colored markers: green for agreement, red for "taking issue" (i.e. disagreement), and so on. We're setting up a backlink server.

Since then, Terry Stanley has coded up a version of CritMap, a graphical display for both the links and backlinks in the document, enabling the reader to get an overview of a connected set of documents, rather than hopping from page to page with no picture of the context. CritMap will be accessed through a button in the mediator program.

The backlink mediator program runs in parallel with a web server, and the source code is in the public domain. Foresight's server will almost surely choke on the traffic as soon as growth takes off; we need other sites to pick up the software and install it, later sharing backlink databases. We're not ready to do this yet, but we will be soon: check the site for the latest information.

Technological foresight: it just leads to work

Ping and Terry are being assisted and advised by other designers and programmers, some of whom have been working on hypertext publishing-related projects for decades, at companies such as Xanadu, AMiX, Memex, Sun, Agorics, and Electric Communities-or on their own time while employed elsewhere.

Robert Lucky, head of Bellcore, spoke at the Association for Computing Machinery's 50th Anniversary, saying "If we couldn't predict the Web, what good are we?" In fact, some did predict the web—most notably Ted Nelson and Doug Engelbart—which is why we who were inspired by their vision can see where today's web needs improvement. See the "Thanks" columns in this and the previous issue of Update for a very partial list of helpful programmers and visionaries—many more have helped than we can list, or even than we know about directly.

Now that backlinks are working, we're turning our attention to the next urgent task: filtering. Hot spots for discussion will become a dense thicket of backlinks, of varying content and quality. We need mechanisms that select which backlinks to display, using criteria selected and adjusted by the reader. This is urgent; without it, the system will be almost unusable.

It must be made usable, because we need it. We need it for discussing the public policy issues confronting us, as the freight train of nanotechnology heads this way. Existing media are so disconnected from reality that our policy debates still spin around a fantasy world in which the future looks far too much like the past. And that's just not good enough—we might as well lie down on the tracks.

But with better tools and the best minds working the problem together, we at Foresight are optimistic that the challenge can be met—that we can ride the wave of revolutionary technological change to a safe shore.

Chris Peterson is Executive Director of Foresight Institute.

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From Foresight Update 30, originally published 1 September 1997.

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