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Foresight Update 40

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

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Inside Foresight

by Chris Peterson

Chris PetersonIn January the U.S. president announced the National Nanotechnology Initiative, a proposed spending program of almost a half -billion dollars.

National Nanotechnology Initiative: Helpful or Not?

Are we pleased and excited by this? Yes and no. On the down side, most of the money will probably be spent on areas irrelevant to molecular nanotechnology development. Career science bureaucrats are masters at relabeling existing work to tap into newly-funded areas. The main positive effect is likely to be increased private R&D, now that the field has been "validated" by government funding.

It was pleasant to see so much of the Foresight-originated meme-set being used at a national level. As oldtimers among you will recall, Foresight's chairman Eric Drexler testified on the environmental benefits of molecular nanotechnology back in 1992, for then-Senator Al Gore's subcommittee. From Gore's questions, it was clear that he "got it", and evidently he hasn't forgotten it.

The success of our memetic engineering work in this area encourages us in our current work on harder problems, such as preventing nanotech abuse.

"Confronting Singularity": Group Genius Weekend May 19-21

Last year's Group Genius event got rave reviews (see It also sold out months in advance, forcing us to turn away new Senior Associates—something we really dislike doing. So this year, we have regretfully moved the Gathering from the beautiful knOwhere Store to a larger facility in Palo Alto.

We're also being more ambitious on the content. In the last Update I discussed whether it feels as though Singularity is creeping up on us; i.e. is technological change in multiple areas on some kind of exponential increase? This is what one would expect on the way to "strong" nanotechnology and—a more controversial topic—strong AI. Quite a few of you have told me that yes, that's how it feels to you also.

This is rather unnerving, when you really think about it, and that's why we do it as a group. By making it fun, we find it easier to face the prospect of radical change within our lifetimes, and to attempt to think about what we might want to do about all this now, in advance, both personally and as an group. We've already started to work on nanotechnology safety—a draft set of Guidelines for R&D work is posted for critiquing on the Senior Associate website. Now let's tackle the harder question: how to prevent abuse of these powerful technologies. We've got some ideas, but we need all the help we can get, especially from Foresight members.

Tackling these big issues requires that we look broadly at what's coming, including not just nanotech and AI but also life extension, patent abuse, weapons of mass destruction, abundance, uploading, computer security (or lack thereof), transparency/surveillance, space expansion, and other topics that attendees feel are relevant.

Meeting face-to-face is essential. Our group is scattered around the planet; we need to form relationships now that will withstand the pressures of increasingly rapid change and tough challenges later. The time to put our team together is today, before the speed of development becomes seriously disorienting.

If you'd like to come help out, don't wait—sign up for this meeting immediately at It's filling fast, and although the facility is larger than last time, there's still a cap on how many participants we can handle. One of our favorite members ignored these warnings last year and had a very hard time getting in—he had assumed that our urgent requests to "register early" were just marketing hype. They're not.

Nature's Molecular Machinery Bootstrapped

Combine the ability to synthesize DNA with the ability to inject it into cells using viruses, and it should result in an ability to alter the DNA inside the cells of a mature human being, such as a hemophiliac who needs the DNA sequence that produces a needed clotting protein.

Sounds plausible, but it hasn't been made to work—until now. Announced yesterday (1 March 2000) in Nature Genetics is the first gene therapy success for human hemophiliacs.

The lesson for nanotechnology? Nothing new technically, but from an educational perspective, it's great to have society being shown the power of deliberate programming of the arrangement of matter at the molecular scale. Few demos are as persuasive as dramatically successful medical applications.

Computer Security and Reliability

The recent distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks on high-profile websites, including the FBI's, has suddenly brought the importance of computer security to the fore. (I can't resist pointing out: we told them so.)

On the other hand, remember the Y2K problem—what happened to that, anyway? As it turned out, it seems that more problems were experienced due to the extra leap year day in 2000 than due to the January 1 rollover.

Why was this? On the technical side, evidently the systems that needed to be fixed for January 1—i.e. financial—were fixed in time, and the rest weren't terribly date-dependent. The very unreliability of most computer systems today may have helped here: no one counts on them to work reliably, so if they don't, it's not the end of the world.

On the social side, heavy media coverage of the computer bug appears to have swamped out millennial religious panic—we were bored with Y2K by the time it arrived. So in this sense, the "Y2K bug" was helpful to us all.

Such social-technical interactions are hard to predict, but let's give it a shot anyway for nanotechnology—the potential benefits to success at this are huge. We hope to see you in May for the next big try.

Christine Peterson is President of Foresight Institute.

Foresight Update 40 - Table of Contents


ACS Sharpens Focus on Nanotechnology

New journal and technical subdivision will be devoted to nano-scale science and technology

The American Chemical Society (ACS), one of the largest associations of professional chemists in the U.S., announced in December that it will launch a new journal devoted to nano-scale science and technology. The new journal, which has been given the working title of Nano Letters, is expected to begin publishing on a monthly schedule in January 2001. A search committee has been formed to select an editor.

According to the ACS' Chemical & Engineering News (13 December 1999), "Nano Letters will concentrate on rapid communication of short papers that present preliminary research results. . . . Topics will include physical, chemical, and biological phenomena, processes, and applications for materials and devices within the nanoscale size range."

The ACS move to begin publishing a nanotechnology-oriented journal follows moves by other institutions to do the same. In July, Kluwer Academic Publishers began issuing the Journal of Nanoparticle Research, and the American Institute of Physics (AIP) and American Physical Society (APS) launched a weekly journal titled Virtual Journal of Nanoscale Science & Technology in January. The latter will comprise a set of electronic links to nanotechnology-related articles appearing in other, participating source journals. ACS' Nano Letters will also have an online version, with links to resources and online availability of articles in advance of print publication, according to the C&EN notice.

Elisabeth M.C. Lutanie, Manager of new product development for the ACS Publications Division, said the new journal will offer an broad interdisciplinary approach: "With Nano Letters, we are hoping to offer a central place for short papers focused on nano only, one that will be truly interdisciplinary."

In a related item, the ACS Division for Industrial and Engineering Chemistry (IEC) announced in its Spring 2000 Newsletter that it is forming a new technical subdivision for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology. The new subdivision will be chaired by Robert C. Haddon, University of Kentucky, with co-chair Joop Schoonman, University of Delft (Netherlands).

Research areas covered by the subdivision include

  • carbon nanoscience, including fullerenes and carbon nanotubes
  • molecular-scale electronic devices, including wires and components
  • molecular self-assembly, with particular emphasis on organized structures and machines
  • quantum size effects, including electronic and photonic phenomena
  • nanotechnologies, including lithographies, microscopies and manipulators
  • crystal engineering, including detailed architectures for electronic and photonic applications
  • engineering of nanoscale dots, films, and 3-dimensional structures
  • molecular-scale biomedical engineering

According to the IEC newsletter, the objectives of the new subdivision are "to provide a forum for the presentation and discussion of research in the field of advanced materials and nanotechnology, and to encourage interaction and partnership between academic and industrial institutions working on the chemical aspects of this area of science."

Other intended objectives include disseminating recent research and technology advances through symposia, possibly in association with national and regional ACS meetings; encouraging research and promoting the development of interdisciplinary and international scientific collaborations; and fostering educational opportunities. Programs for fostering awareness of nanotechnology and advanced materials sciences among the public and professional communities are also envisioned. The subdivision plans to begin technical programming in the Fall 2000 ACS National Meeting (Washington, DC).

For more information, contact Robert Haddon at

Foresight Update 40 - Table of Contents


Building Molecules One by One

Researchers Use STM to Form Single Bonds

Cornell University physicists studying chemical bonding have combined a single molecule with a single atom to form a new molecule.

Wilson Ho, professor of physics, and graduate research assistant Hyojune Lee used a specially designed scanning tunneling microscope (STM) to pick up single molecules of carbon monoxide (CO) and bond them to an iron (Fe) atom to form molecules of iron carbonyl (FeCO). By obtaining the new assembly's vibrational spectrum — a measure of the energy in the bonds between atoms — they verified that a chemical bond had truly been formed to produce a new molecule.

The primary purpose of the work is to demonstrate a technique for single molecule formation and to learn more about the properties of chemical bonds. But Lee noted that the technology used could have future applications in nanofabrication, the creation of materials and devices at the atomic or molecular level. "One implication is that since we can build up molecules from atoms step by step, in the future it might be possible to build up more complicated molecules from separate ingredients," he said.

The researchers used an STM of exceptional precision to manipulate atoms of iron and molecules of carbon monoxide adsorbed on a silver (Ag) surface in a vacuum. The entire apparatus was cooled to a temperature of 13 degrees Kelvin.

In their experiment, the researchers used the STM to scan a surface and locate iron atoms and carbon monoxide molecules. They then lowered the tip over a CO molecule and increased the voltage and current flow of the instrument to pick up the molecule. Finally, they moved the molecule on the tip over an iron atom and reversed the current flow, causing the molecule to bond to the atom, and form an iron carbonyl FeCO molecule. The researchers were also able to add another CO molecule to the FeCO, forming a molecule of Fe(CO)2.

The paper, "Single Bond Formation and Characterization with a Scanning Tunneling Microscope," appeared in the 26 November 1999 issue of Science. Image available in Cornell University press release

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From Foresight Update 40, originally published 31 March 2000.

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