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Foresight Update 47

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A publication of the Foresight Institute


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Inside Foresight

by Tanya Jones

Tanya Jones While there are downsides to connectivity, the benefits clearly outweigh the costs. People are strong alone, but they are stronger still when strung together. Being somewhat distant means that people may occasionally send off an angry email, but they rarely storm the gates from a distance.

Online campaigns often resemble petitions, polling, or presentations. Especially general presentations, but all of these are becoming more sophisticated in their use of words and graphics, allowing more precise communication of data, thoughts, and ideas. Though the occasional flame war emerges from such online activity, it's still hard to incite a virtual riot. These qualities make an online forum well suited to developing policy and process.

With the Crit (http://crit.org) tool, we can use our collective intelligence to critique, object, question, or support strategy. This could be a valuable tool for anticipating future events. While we have some ideas for additional tools to make policy development even easier, new tools will only take us so far. We also need people.

We need to increase the scope of our network, expand into new realms. We are seeing tremendous scientific and financial resources being expended in the pursuit of nanotechnology. But do we have enough foresight, enough vision? Do we have enough anticipation? Do we know enough about affecting social events? Do we know enough law? Do we have enough money to pull it off? Except maybe for that last one, it's my contention that we do not. But it's also my belief that most of us like to learn, and that should help us survive and thrive in the long term.

As unpleasant as some surprises can be, it's still fortunate that we can't predict all events. Those unexpected twists give us an excellent opportunity to expand our capabilities, increase our education. But new knowledge will die in a vacuum. We need to distribute and embrace new knowledge.

With the pervasiveness of the web, servers, and connectivity, nearly anyone can create a document and make it available for anyone to see. Few documents convey knowledge, which is evidenced by the fact that it is so hard to find specific information (unless you become a Master of the Search Term). We have search engines and lists of links, we have mail forwarding and we have friends. We need better and more.

We must be pro-active—not reactive—in our efforts to ensure safe development of nanotechnology, and there are ways that everyone can help.

  • Invest directly. Time, money, and resources are all needed to further education and public policy development. Participate in this year's Challenge Grant, an annual event where the value of all donations is doubled. Donations in any amount are encouraged and tax deductible to the full extent allowed by law. The deadline for this is January 31, 2002. Visit our website for current progress.
  • Improve our network. Bring a friend to Foresight. Encourage them to sign up as a Senior Associate and join us at the Spring Gathering, a conference where real work gets done. Introduce an expert to Nanodot. Send someone a gift subscription to the Foresight Update.
  • Submit a paper. We cannot be prepared for the future if we don't exchange ideas and discuss them. Foresight offers a home for publishing essays about the development of emerging technologies and associated policy issues. For essays that relate to nanotechnology directly, we can virtually promise a discussion opportunity in Nanodot.

For the short-term future, we can expect nanotechnology to be developed in an open fashion. We'll be able to read about progress in theory and in the lab — at least until product development stages begin to approach commercialization. When that occurs, we'll have the pleasure of reviewing new products and services brought to us by our new methods.

Foresight is committed to ensuring that our members have access to information about the development of nanotechnology, past, present, and future; and we delight in bringing that information to you. But even though we already have difficulty in tracking everything that is going on out there, we still should be adding more to our informational arsenal.

It's impossible to tell people how to live, unless they are our children or an otherwise captive audience, and even those people rebel at times. Once they are free to live as they will, we can only influence. Getting together as a group allows us to influence directly. A membership organization like Foresight, which gathers a few time each year, is mostly impactful from afar. What this means for us is that we must make our meetings memorable and our communications dense.

Many of our members come to us with no prior contact. They come to us via the web. We'd like to make sure that everyone feels comfortable and excited about the decision to join with us, and we hope that we'll hear from you some time soon. If you're looking for a way to get involved, the guidelines for the safe development of nanotechnology are a great place to start. Foresight and IMM teamed up last year to develop a preliminary document discussing nano policy.

If everyone points their browser at this page, and makes one lonely comment, we may have enough to inspire a significant revision. Visit http://crit.org/http://www.foresight.org/guidelines/current.html and question, oppose or agree.

There are many other ways that you can personally affect the creation of a confident future. If we haven't given you an option that appeals here, let me know. We're big fans of new ideas, and we don't particularly care who knows it.

Tanya Jones is Foresight's Director of Communications. You can eMail her at tanya@foresight.org



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Foresight Update 47 - Table of Contents

 

U.S. Army to establish new center for "Soldier Nanotechnologies"

The U.S. Army began taking a detailed look at short-term applications for nanotechnology during a "Workshop on Nanoscience for the Soldier", which was held by the Army Research Office at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center in Durham, NC, in early February 2001.

The workshop marked the start of a program by the U.S. Army to establish the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN) and a University Affiliated Research Center (UARC), with academic and industry partners, to develop nanometer-scale science and technology solutions that could be incorporated into a soldier's gear.

Information about the intended goals of the ISN can be found in the formal solicitation for the center released in October 2001 (available online as an Adobe Acrobat PDF file). Funding for the ISN will be about $US 10 million per year, for at least five years. According to the solicitation:

"The individual soldier . . . will require systems revolutionary in their capabilities. Recent advances in the field of nanoscience suggest that may be possible to provide the soldier with radically new capabilities in full-spectrum threat protection without incurring significant weight or volume penalties. Such soldier systems will only be realized by directing additional resources to the Army's Science and Technology Program in the emerging field of nanoscience. . . .

"The purpose of this research center of excellence is to develop unclassified nanometer-scale science and technology solutions for the soldier. A single university will host this center, which will emphasize revolutionary materials research toward advanced soldier protection and survivability capabilities."

Applications could include a uniform that monitors a soldier's vital signs, or sends out an alert in the presence of toxins and decontaminates the soldier before any damage occurs. Or it could be a material that changes color to camouflage the soldier or protect him or her against ballistics.

An article on the Small Times website ("Army scouts out research university to help equip tomorrow's nansoldier", by Candice Stuart, 13 June 2001), provided additional coverage of the Army's announcement.

According to the article, researchers expect the program will benefit the Army but also commercial users. "They will take these enabling materials and apply them to make solutions," said Sanford Asher, a chemistry professor at the University of Pittsburgh who participated in the nanotech workshops sponsored by the Army.

Although the Army is involved, he anticipates any knowledge gained through the collaboration would remain in the public domain. "The things that are classified are not enabling technologies," he said. "You can't keep enabling technology a secret. I don't think that will be an issue. The issue will be once you take the enabling technology and make something for the Army. It will be classified on the industry side."

The new program was the subject of Congressional hearings. This included the testimony of Delores Etter, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Science and Technology, along with chief scientists from other military departments, before the House Armed Services Strategic Subcommittee on the state of military research and development, on 26 June 2001.

An article from United Press International ("Congressional panel hears plans for nanotechnology in the military", by K. Hearn, 27 June 2001) included some of the comments:

"Nanotechnology is something that will give us revolutionary, new capabilities, though a lot of research has to be done," said Etter. While major breakthroughs and benefits are still decades away, she said nanotechnology will help systems become smaller, "whether we look to get smaller power sources, things needing lower power or materials built from the atomic level."

"Technology developments in nanoscience and advanced materials are needed to provide revolutionary opportunities for the war fighter to develop totally new operational concepts and capabilities, based on such developments," Etter and another witness, Edward "Pete" Aldridge, Undersecretary of Defense Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, said in written testimony.

Competition between universities in the U.S. to become the host for the University Affiliated Research Center (UARC) has been keen.

Responses to the solicitation from universities competing to host the UARC were due by 15 November 2001. An announcement of where the facility will be hosted is expected to be made sometime early in 2002.


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Getting At the Basics of Replicating Machines

The August 2001 issue of Scientific American has an interesting article ("Go Forth and Replicate", by M. Sipper and J. A. Reggia) on machine replication. (Unfortunately, it is not available online).

The article describes attempts to develop a general understanding of self-replicating systems, with its roots in the work of John von Neumann, Stanislaw Ulam, and others. The article covers research into cellular automata simulations before moving on to describe more recent work by the authors and others that often employ evolutionary methods, including self-replicating systems that do not include an explicit self-description. They also mention the pioneering 1980 NASA study on complex replicating machine systems led by Robert A. Freitas Jr., now a researcher at Zyvex Corp. and author of Nanomedicine (portions of the study are available online).

The authors, aware of the implications, state: "Researchers in the field of nanotechnology have long proposed that self-replication will be crucial to manufacturing molecular-scale machines . . . Recent advances have given credence to these futuristic-sounding ideas." They add that the study of such systems presents a "twofold challenge of creating replicating machines and avoiding dystopian predictions of devices running amok. The knowledge we gain will help us separate good technologies from destructive ones."

For more information on self-replicating systems:


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From Foresight Update 47, originally published 31 December 2001.



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