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THE SINGULARITY film premiere at The Castro Theatre 09.16.13

Posted by Jim Lewis on September 6th, 2013

THE SINGULARITY, a documentary directed by Doug Wolens

Just off special screenings at NASA and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Doug Wolens’s documentary THE SINGULARITY will premiere on the giant silver screen at San Francisco’s historic Castro Theatre. An awesome venue for the premiere of the most comprehensive and insightful documentary film about the singularity to date.

Within the coming decades we will be able to create computers with greater than human intelligence, bio-engineer our species and re-design matter through nanotechnology. How will these technologies change what it means to be human? Director Doug Wolens speaks with leading futurists, computer scientists, artificial intelligence experts, and philosophers who turn over the question like a Rubik’s Cube. Ultimately, if we become more machine-like, and machines more like us, will we sacrifice our humanity to gain something greater? Or will we engineer our own demise?

Q&A with filmmaker Doug Wolens to follow the screening.
Show times: 4pm and 8pm — 75 minutes

THE SINGULARITY will be shown together with Doug’s earlier films BUTTERFLY (2000) and WEED (1996)

Tickets now available through Brown Paper
Tickets: One ticket is good for all 3 films!

For more information go to:
Official event listing:
The Castro Theatre listing:
Facebook page:

Among those featured in this documentary well-known in the Foresight community are Ray Kurzweil, Christine Peterson, Ben Goertzel, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Aubrey De Grey, Ralph Merkle, Brad Templeton, and Chris Phoenix.

Conference video: Assembly and Manipulation of Molecules at the Atomic Scale

Posted by Jim Lewis on August 29th, 2013

Credit: Leonhard Grill

A select set of videos from the 2013 Foresight Technical Conference: Illuminating Atomic Precision, held January 11-13, 2013 in Palo Alto, have been made available on vimeo. Videos have been posted of those presentations for which the speakers have consented. Other presentations contained confidential information and will not be posted.

The second speaker at the Atomic Scale Devices session, the winner of the 2011 Feynman Prize for Experimental work, Leonhard Grill, presented his prize-winning work “Assembly and Manipulation of Molecules at the Atomic Scale: ‘Stiching and Switching’biography and abstract, – video length 27:43. He addressed two topics: (1) the manipulation of single molecules on surfaces to gain fundamental understanding of their function by triggering their function, which could be mechanical, optical, or electronic, directly on the surface; (2) how to build molecular architectures on a surface in a very controlled way with pre-defined topography using different kinds of interactions on the surface. The work he presented was done using a scanning tunneling microscope (STM) under high vacuum to keep things clean, and at the very low temperature of 5 K to minimize molecular movement. The first example illustrated a mechanical function, a rolling motion of a molecule on a surface. Previous demonstrations of lateral movement of a single molecule as a result of STM manipulation relied on getting the molecule to hop from one point on the surface to another. A molecular wheel made from a triptycene dimer was manipulated with the STM, causing the molecule to move across the surface. However, monitoring electric current through the tip in real time as the molecule moved, yielding a saw-tooth pattern, showed the motion to be hopping rather than rolling. So they changed the substrate from copper (100), which is very flat, to copper (110), which consists of atomic lines of copper atoms. Because of these corrugations on the surface, the molecular wheel was able to roll over the surface.

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Next Foresight Conference on Nanotechnology in February 2014

Posted by Jim Lewis on August 28th, 2013

17th Foresight Conference: ”The Integration Conference

February 7-9, 2014
Crowne Plaza Cabana Hotel, Palo Alto
Silicon Valley, California, USA

Over 20 speakers will present their research and vision within the realm of groundbreaking atomic- and molecular-scale science and engineering with application across a wide range of advanced technologies, including materials, electronics, energy conversion, biotechnology and more. Events will include presentation of the annual Foresight Institute Feynman Prize, one of the most prestigious awards in nanoscale science and technology.

Integration: The development and proliferation of nanotechnology through its applications in diverse fields are dependent upon the successful integration of nano-engineered devices and materials (“nanosystems”) into more complex micro- and macro-systems. Thus, this year the concept of Integration is highlighted, for the successful integration of nanosystems can impact the rate of development, application, and ultimately benefit.

Analysis, simulation, synthesis, and mass production are challenges for nanotechnology integration in such diverse applications as biotechnology, medicine, microelectronics, defense, energy conversion and storage, coatings, textiles, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and even food and food security.

Conference Co-Chairs
Robert P. Meagley, CEO/CTO, ONE Nanotechnologies
William A. Goddard III, Director, Materials and Process Simulation Center, Caltech

Planned Sessions include:

  • Analysis and Simulation
  • Bionano Systems
  • Commercially Implemented Nanotechnology
  • Electronic and Optical Nanosystems
  • Self-Organizing & Adaptive Systems

Look for further details on the conference, speakers, and events in the coming weeks and months. Registration will open in mid-September.

Warped graphene molecules offer new building blocks for nanotechnology

Posted by Jim Lewis on August 26th, 2013

Credit: Boston College

There has been a great deal of interest over the past few years in the properties of graphene, one-atom-thick sheets of trigonal carbon atoms. For the most part, the graphene sheets that have been studied are large on the molecular scale, irregular in their extent, and flat. Chemists have now synthesized distinct molecular species of grossly distorted graphene, somewhat more than one nanometer across, comprising 80 carbon atoms and 30 hydrogen atoms. A hat tip to KurzweilAI for highlighting this Boston College news release “Chemists at Boston College, Nagoya University Synthesize First Example of New Carbon Form“:

Chemists at Boston College and Nagoya University have together synthesized the first example of a new form of carbon, the team reports in the most recent edition of the journal Nature Chemistry [abstract]. This new material consists of many identical piece of grossly warped graphene, each containing exactly 80 carbon atoms joined together in a network of 26 rings, with 30 hydrogen atoms decorating the rim. These individual molecules, because they measure somewhat more than a nanometer across, are referred to generically as “nanocarbons,” or more specifically in this case as “grossly warped nanographenes.” …

Graphene sheets prefer planar, 2-dimensional geometries as a consequence of the hexagonal, chicken wire-like, arrangements of trigonal carbon atoms comprising their two-dimensional networks. The new form of carbon just reported in Nature Chemistry, however, is wildly distorted from planarity as a consequence of the presence of five 7-membered rings and one 5-membered ring embedded in the hexagonal lattice of carbon atoms.

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Illuminating Atomic Precision Conference videos

Posted by Jim Lewis on August 23rd, 2013

Credit: John Randall, Zyvex Labs

A select set of videos from the 2013 Foresight Technical Conference: Illuminating Atomic Precision, held January 11-13, 2013 in Palo Alto, have been made available on vimeo. Videos have been posted of those presentations for which the speakers have consented. Other presentations contained confidential information and will not be posted.

In his introductory comments, Conference Co-Chair Larry S. Millstein stressed that the five sessions of the Conference were designed to bring together five research communities that have until now not had close contacts, in the hope that their interactions would accelerate progress. Similarly, the Conference’s restrictive media policy was designed to accelerate progress by encouraging speakers to share with Conference participants unpublished research by assuring them that sharing these results would not interfere with their future publication. video length 3:49.

In his introductory comments, Conference Co-Chair J. Fraser Stoddart observed that for a quarter of a century nanotechnology has been bringing together physicists, chemists, biologists, material scientists, engineers, and computational people under the banner of “nano”. He referred to his own recent work as an example of the self-assembly of simple structures to produce emergent complex behavior, and expressed the desire that this assembly bringing together widely divergent scientific, technological and engineering perspectives would inspire new knowledge. video length 7:36.

John Randall introduced the session on Atomic Scale Devices and discussed work at Zyvex Labs on “Atomically Precise Manufacturing”. – video length 28:52. Randall made clear at the onset that by atomic precision, he is not talking about a precision of plus or minus one atom, but rather about absolute precision in manufacturing—no size variation. You put the atoms where you want them so everything is the same and matter can be dealt with as though it is digital. There is no accumulation of error and eventually materials can be defect free. He proposed that once absolute precision is achieved that the volume of material that could be produced cost effectively would increase exponentially, making an “educated guess” that using techniques that they are working on today, they will reach one cubic micrometer before 2020. He described the Atomically Precise Manufacturing Consortium and their commitment to bring atom-by-atom manufacturing tools to market. Their approach uses an STM to precisely remove individual hydrogen atoms from the surface of a passivated crystal, followed by atomic layer epitaxy to build three-dimensional structures with top-down control, “putting every atom where we want it.” Randall emphasized that the STM tip is not used to drag Si or H atoms around and into place; it is only used to image and for electron-stimulated desorption of passivated hydrogen atoms. Examples of products that might start this proposed exponential manufacturing trend include a nanometrology standard consisting of a wall of silicon a know number of atoms wide and a known number of atoms tall, NEMS resonators that operate in the terahertz regime, master templates for nanoimprinting, devices for quantum computing, and nanopores for ultra-high-speed DNA sequencing.
—James Lewis, PhD

Nanocrystal-in-glass composite controlled by voltage

Posted by Jim Lewis on August 23rd, 2013

Nanocrystals of indium tin oxide (shown here in blue) embedded in a glassy matrix of niobium oxide (green) form a composite material that can switch between NIR-transmitting and NIR-blocking states with a small jolt of electricity. A synergistic interaction in the region where glassy matrix meets nanocrystal increases the potency of the electrochromic effect. (Credit: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory)

The most fundamental dimension in the transition from current nanotechnology, which is mostly materials science and simple devices, to the advanced nanotechnology of productive nanosystems and atomically precise manufacturing will be the dimension of greater control of the structure of matter leading to atomic precision. But another important dimension is imbuing matter with intelligence. Ultimately that intelligence will be embodied in control by atomically precise digital computers, but steps toward that goal are resulting from nanocomposites that combine a sensing and an effecting function. A hat tip to ScienceDaily for reprinting this Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory news release written by Alison Hatt “Raising the IQ of Smart Windows“:

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have designed a new material to make smart windows even smarter. The material is a thin coating of nanocrystals embedded in glass that can dynamically modify sunlight as it passes through a window. Unlike existing technologies, the coating provides selective control over visible light and heat-producing near-infrared (NIR) light, so windows can maximize both energy savings and occupant comfort in a wide range of climates.

“In the US, we spend about a quarter of our total energy on lighting, heating and cooling our buildings,” says Delia Milliron, a chemist at Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry who led this research. “When used as a window coating, our new material can have a major impact on building energy efficiency.”

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Improved molecular targeting via cellular automata

Posted by Stephanie C on August 12th, 2013

In simplest terms, cellular automata can be thought of as groups of ‘cells’ in which the state of an individual cell will flip depending on the states of its neighbors. A ‘cell’ can be a pixel, a molecule, etc. The mathematical rules associated with cellular automation are complex and have been applied to fields as diverse as computation and cryptography to patterns of pigment in seashells. Now researchers at Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) in New York City and Columbia University have used an analogous system of molecular cascades to select for particular biological surfaces, taking new steps towards medical therapeutics that use multiple recognition events to improve molecular targeting. The work is published in Nature Nanotechnology, and the press release was reprinted at

Many drugs such as agents for cancer or autoimmune diseases have nasty side effects because while they kill disease-causing cells, they also affect healthy cells. Now a new study has demonstrated a technique for developing more targeted drugs, by using molecular “robots” to hone in on more specific populations of cells.

Drugs can target disease-causing cells by binding to a receptor, but in some cases, disease-causing cells do not have unique receptors and therefore drugs also bind to healthy cells and cause “off-target” side effects.

Rituximab (Rituxan, Genentech), for example, is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and chronic lymphocytic leukemia by docking on CD20 receptors of aberrant cells that are causing the diseases. However, certain immune cells also have CD20 receptors and thus the drug can interfere with a person’s ability to mount a fight against infection.

In the new study, scientists have designed molecular robots that can identify multiple receptors on cell surfaces, thereby effectively labeling more specific subpopulations of cells. The molecular robots, called molecular automata, are composed of a mixture of antibodies and short strands of DNA.
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Molecular sponges give atomic structures of trace substances

Posted by Jim Lewis on August 8th, 2013

Ever since Richard Feynman lamented in his 1959 talk “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” that the electron microscope failed by two orders of magnitude to image individual atoms, a general method of imaging nanostructures to atomic resolution has been an integral part of the Feynman vision of what was later called nanotechnology: the construction of atomically-precise products through the use of molecular machine systems. Imaging proteins to atomic resolution is a necessary subgoal of Eric Drexler’s 1981 proposal that protein design could provide an approach to develop general capabilities for molecular engineering and molecular manipulation. X-ray crystallography has been the gold standard for obtaining atomically precise structures for proteins and other nanostructures, but this method requires substantial amounts of crystalline material, and not all proteins, and certainly not all nanostructures, are available in crystalline form. Nadrian C. Seeman, the pioneer of DNA nanotechnology, one of the most promising roads to atomically precise manufacturing (APM), has said that “The first goal is to use our branched DNA system to scaffold the organization of biological macromolecules into crystalline arrays, thus overcoming the crystallization problem of biological crystallography. This will enable the 3D structural characterization of potential drug targets, leading to rational drug design.” The electron microscope has been greatly improved since Feynman’s time and some success has been obtained in using DNA nanotechnology to organize proteins for structure determination. However, another option is now available. A blog by Derek Lowe discusses a paper from a group at the University of Tokyo published in Nature earlier this year [abstract] that uses porous metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) as ‘chemical sponges’ as ‘hosts’ to soak up very small quantities of small to mid-sized molecules as ‘guests’ so that X-ray crystallography of the host-guest complex provides the structure of the guest molecule. From “X-Ray Structures Of Everything. Without Crystals. Holy Cow“:.

… This latest paper demonstrates that if you soak a solution of some small molecule in a bit of crystalline porous “molecular sponge”, you can get the x-ray structure of the whole complex [emphasis in the original], small molecules and all. If you’re not a chemist you might not feel the full effect of that statement, but so far, every chemist I’ve tried it out on has reacted with raised eyebrows, disbelief, and sometimes a four-letter exclamation for good measure. …

The crystalline stuff in question turns out to be two complexes with tris(4-pyridyl)triazine and either cobalt isothiocyanate or zinc iodide. These form large cage-like structures in the solid state, with rather different forms, but each of them seems to be able to pick up small molecules and hold them in a repeating, defined orientation. Shown is a lattice of santonin molecules in the molecular cage, to give you the idea.

Just as impressive is the scale that this technique works on. They demonstrate that by solving the structure of a marine natural product, miyakosyne A, using a 5-microgram sample. I might add that its structure certainly does not look like something that is likely to crystallize easily on its own, and indeed, no crystal is known. By measuring the amount of absorbed material in other examples and extrapolating down to their X-ray sample size, the authors estimate that they can get a structure on as little as 80 nanograms of actual compound. …

With the help of Google Scholar, I found full text PDFs of the original Nature article here and here. Nature News also comments on the research article.

Although the pores used in this paper are not large enough to accept protein molecules as guests, Lowe points to a recent paper in Science on a series of MOFs with pore apertures ranging from 1.4 to 9.8 nm—large enough to accept proteins or other interesting nanostructures or molecular building blocks. As often the case with advances in the molecular sciences, the motivation for the research appears to be basic science or biotechnology. Nevertheless, the ability to obtain atomically precise structural information for minute quantities of difficult or impossible to crystallize molecules and nanostructures could greatly facilitate developments leading to APM. Last year we cited the potential of MOFs as “building blocks in the molecular machine path to molecular manufacturing”. At the very least, they appear likely to indirectly accelerate progress by providing structural information for a wide variety of useful nanostructures. Whether or not they could eventually supplement DNA scaffolds as ways to organize a complex set of components of molecular machine systems could depend upon whether methods can be found to address individual pores within the MOFs.
—James Lewis, PhD

Nanoscale box aids single-molecule optical detection

Posted by Stephanie C on July 29th, 2013

Credit: Jerome Wenger, Fresnel Institute

Good old fashioned boxes are here to stay, even in the context of nanoscale devices. Across a broad range of technologies and size regimes, boxes serve as containers for components, barriers against contaminants and/or radiation, and, as in the case of cell membranes, can be permeable to allow selected interactions between the interior and exterior. In a recent advance in optical detection, a nanoscale box-like housing was used to create an aperture that greatly enhanced the ability of antenna structures to detect single molecules at physiological concentrations. As reprinted at

Researchers at the Fresnel Institute in Marseille and ICFO-the Institute for Photonic Sciences in Barcelona report in Nature Nanotechnology the design and fabrication of the smallest optical device, capable of detecting and sensing individual biomolecules at concentrations that are similar to those found in the cellular context. The device called “antenna-in-a-box” consists of a tiny dimer antenna made out of two gold semi-spheres, separated from each other by a gap as small as 15nm. Light sent to this antenna is enormously amplified in the gap region where the actual detection of the biomolecule of interest occurs. Because amplification of the light is confined to the dimensions of the gap, only molecules present in this tiny region are detected. A second trick that the researchers used to make this device work was to embed the dimer antennas inside boxes also of nanometric dimensions. “The box screens out the unwanted “noise” of millions of other surrounding molecules, reducing the background and improving as a whole the detection of individual biomolecules.”, explains Jerome Wenger from Fresnel Institute. When tested under different sample concentrations, this novel antenna-in-box device allowed for 1100-fold fluorescence brightness enhancement together with detection volumes down to 58 zeptoliters (1 zL = 10-21L), i.e., the smallest observation volume in the world.

IFCO researcher and coauthor Maria Garcia-Parajo notes that the platform could also serve as a very bright, nanoscale light source.

Because the optical benefits come from the inner dimensions of the box (i.e. the aperture), the outer dimensions can vary, opening possibilities for customized sizes and shapes, as well as possible detection arrays.

-Posted by Stephanie C

DNA nanotechnology positions components to optimize single-molecule fluorescence

Posted by Jim Lewis on July 19th, 2013

Credit: Technische Universität Braunschweig

Recently we noted an extensive review of the use of DNA scaffolds to orient molecules for molecular studies, as this capability could lead to organizing functional components for atomically precise manufacturing (APM). An excellent example of this capability of DNA scaffolds, published last year in Science [abstract] has been made available for open access: “Fluorescence enhancement at docking sites of DNA-directed self-assembled nanoantennas” (pdf). A press release from the Technische Universität Braunschweig (in German, translated by

Light on the nanoscale focus: Researchers present tiny lenses from nanoparticles and DNA

Conventional lenses may focus light only to a volume of about one femtoliters (10-15 liters), which corresponds to a cubic micron. This limitation is a result of diffraction, which is inherent in all conventional lenses, and prevents many applications in the field of nanotechnology. The research group led by Prof. Philip Tinnefeld, Institute of Physical and Theoretical Chemistry, Technical University of Braunschweig, now has developed a method, are produced in parallel with the millions of so-called nano-lenses of metallic nanoparticles and DNA. These nano-lenses allow us to investigate even single molecules up to one hundred times more precise.

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Nanotechnology, optical lithography, and petabyte data storage media

Posted by Jim Lewis on July 16th, 2013

Credit: Nature Communications

Foresight’s interest is in advancing nanotechnology to the point of developing high-throughput atomically precise manufacturing, but it is worth noting occasionally the potential applications of nanoscale technologies that achieve less than atomic precision. These two examples point toward several-orders-of-magnitude improvement in data storage technology. A hat tip to for reprinting this article written by researchers at Australia’s Swinburne University of Technology “More data storage? Here’s how to fit 1,000 terabytes on a DVD” by M Gu, Y Cao, and Z Gan:

In Nature Communications [open access article] today, we, along with Richard Evans from CSIRO, show how we developed a new technique to enable the data capacity of a single DVD to increase from 4.7 gigabytes up to one petabyte (1,000 terabytes). This is equivalent of 10.6 years of compressed high-definition video or 50,000 full high-definition movies. …

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Recent highlights and discussions of APM concepts

Posted by Stephanie C on July 12th, 2013

The release of Eric Drexler’s new book Radical Abundance has sparked a resurgence of discussion about nanotechnology and the global future.

Last month, Nanowerk reprinted Drexler’s blog write-up entitled The Physical Basis of High-Throughput Atomically Precise Manufacturing, a reader-friendly overview highlighting parallels between molecular manufacturing and conventional chemistry and manufacturing.

Over the last couple months, Robin Hanson, associate professor of economics at George Mason and a well-known name to many in the broader Foresight community, has been posting his critiques of various aspects of Radical Abundance, leading to some response and conversation that Drexler has featured on his blog site
-Posted by Stephanie C

Reviews of DNA nanotechnology-atomically precise microscale objects

Posted by Jim Lewis on July 9th, 2013

Recently we noted the use of DNA nanotechnology to build a solar energy antenna as another example of progress in the modular molecular composite nanosystems (MMCNs) approach to developing atomically precise manufacturing. Structural DNA nanotechnology is currently the only way we have to manufacture large (million-atom, 100-nm-scale) arbitrarily complex atomically precise objects, so it plays a central role in the MMCN approach. Two very useful recent overviews of structural DNA nanotechnology have been made freely available on the web.

DNA nanotechnology: a curiosity or a promising technology? by Thomas Tørring and Kurt V. Gothelf, Center for DNA Nanotechnology (CDNA) at the Interdisciplinary Nanoscience Center (iNANO), Aarhus University, Denmark, nicely covers the most important results of this extensive and rapidly progressing field in a very brief and accessible article.

A more detailed and technical review emphasizes the use of DNA scaffolds to orient molecules for single-molecule studies: “Single-Molecule Analysis Using DNA Origami” by Arivazhagan Rajendran, Masayuki Endo, and Hiroshi Sugiyama of Kyoto University and Japan Science and Technology Corporation [abstract] has been made available by the authors as a full-text PDF here. This extensive review covers single-molecule biomolecular recognition, conformational analysis, chemical reactions, enzymatic reactions, single molecule fluorescence studies, and cargo transporters and DNA robots. As documented by this review, the volume of work in this field has expanded to the point that we can cover only a small part of it here, so this review is a good place to get some appreciation of what is happening. The part that struck me as most relevant to atomically precise manufacturing was the example of “click chemistry” on a DNA origami surface (section 4.2, Fig. 7) since this might represent a path toward positional control of chemical synthesis.
—James Lewis, PhD

Foresight Advisor Doug Engelbart, 1925-2013, will be greatly missed

Posted by Jim Lewis on July 3rd, 2013

Douglas Engelbart in 2008

Douglas Engelbart in 2008

It is with great sadness that Foresight acknowledges the passing of Foresight Advisor Doug Engelbart, Ph.D. (1925-2013), a visionary technologist whose early inventions led to today’s Information Revolution. From his NY Times obituary “Douglas C. Engelbart, Inventor of the Computer Mouse, Dies at 88” by John Markoff:

Douglas C. Engelbart, a visionary scientist whose singular epiphany in 1950 about technology’s potential to expand human intelligence led to a host of inventions — among them the computer mouse — that became the basis for both the Internet and the modern personal computer, died on Tuesday at his home in Atherton, Calif. He was 88. …

Beginning in the 1950s, when computing was in its infancy, Dr. Engelbart set out to show that progress in science and engineering could be greatly accelerated if researchers, working in small groups, shared computing power. He called the approach “bootstrapping” and believed it would raise what he called their “collective IQ.” …

In a single stroke he had what might be called a complete vision of the information age. He saw himself sitting in front of a large computer screen full of different symbols, a vision most likely derived from his work on radar consoles while in the Navy after World War II. The screen, he thought, would serve as a display for a workstation that would organize all the information and communications for a given project.…

Dr. Engelbart was awarded the National Medal of Technology, the Lemelson-MIT Prize and the Turing Award, among others honors.…

Dr. Engelbart’s inventions were part of his long=term goal of “Boosting mankind’s capability for coping with complex, urgent problems“:

The Doug Engelbart Institute was founded by Doug Engelbart with daughter Christina Engelbart to further his lifelong career goal of boosting our collective capability to solve important problems intelligently, for which he coined the term Collective IQ.

We recognize that the opportunities, problems, and challenges we face – whether business, social, political, economic, environment – are increasing exponentially on a global scale, so finding exponentially more powerful ways to collectively address important challenges is critical;

This is both a dire threat and a golden opportunity – companies, initiatives, regions, nations that kick into gear on this soonest will likely surpass those that don’t in leaps and bounds.

The sooner we reach critical mass as a planet, the better off we all are, and thus there is tremendous value in sharing best practices, and in addressing this collectively as a Grand Challenge.

Dr. Engelbart served on Foresight’s Board of Advisors since 1997. He was particularly interested in assisting Foresight in our goal of speeding the positive impacts of new technologies while preventing negative uses, and joined us in advocating online hypertext-based discussion and argumentation systems for exploring and projecting coming technological applications. His vision and faith in the ability of human intelligence to master humanity’s exponentially growing problems will be sorely missed.
—James Lewis, PhD

DNA nanotechnology builds solar energy antenna

Posted by Jim Lewis on June 21st, 2013

(Credit: Image courtesy of Chalmers University of Technology)

The modular molecular composite nanosystems (MMCNs) approach to developing atomically precise manufacturing, described in the 2007 Technology Roadmap for Productive Nanosystems, proposes using DNA scaffolds to organize smaller functional components to execute complex tasks. In another demonstration of the functional utility of DNA scaffolds, scientists in Sweden have used DNA scaffolds to position dye molecules to increases the efficiency of artificial photosynthesis. A hat tip to ScienceDaily for reprinting this news release from Chalmers University of Technology “DNA constructs antenna for solar energy“:

A research team at Chalmers University of Technology has made a nanotechnological breakthrough in the first step required for artificial photosynthesis. The team has demonstrated that it is possible to use self-assembling DNA molecules as scaffolding to create artificial systems that collect light. The results were recently published in the esteemed scientific Journal of the American Chemical Society [abstract].

Scaffolding in plants and algae consists of a large number of proteins that organise chlorophyll molecules to ensure effective light collection. The system is complicated and would basically be impossible to construct artificially.

“It’s all over if a bond breaks,” says Jonas Hannestad, PhD of physical chemistry. “If DNA is used instead to organise the light-collecting molecules, the same precision is not achieved but a dynamic self-constructing system arises.”

With a system that builds itself, the researchers have begun to approach nature’s method. If any of the light-collecting molecules break, it will be replaced with another one a second later. In this sense, it is a self-repairing system as opposed to if molecules had been put there by researchers with synthetic organic chemistry.

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Mass production of higher quality oligonucleotides to spur DNA nanotechnology

Posted by Jim Lewis on June 6th, 2013

An illustration of the production of oligonucleotides. Credit: Björn Högberg

Currently structural DNA nanotechnology, either scaffolded DNA origami or DNA bricks, is the most promising method to build arbitrarily complex multi-million-atom atomically precise structures (see, for example these posts from the past six months Re-engineering a junction to give a new twist to DNA nanotechnology, Testing and improving scaffolded DNA origami for molecular nanotechnology, and Arbitrarily complex 3D DNA nanostructures built from DNA bricks). One of the major limitations of these methods, however, is the cost and quality of the small, single-stranded DNA molecules required, which are prepared by solid state chemical synthesis. Without these solid state synthesis methods, DNA nanotechnology, and indeed much of molecular biology, would have been impossible. However, chemical synthesis is expensive, rendering scale-up very difficult, and as the oligonucleotides become longer than a few tens of nucleotides, impurities and mistakes in synthesis become difficult to remove, potentially compromising atomic precision. Fortunately two DNA nanotechnology laboratories at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and at Harvard and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute appear to have solved this problem by harnessing biological molecular machine systems to make large quantities of very high quality single-stranded DNA oligonucleotides. A hat tip to for reprinting the news from the Karolinska Institute “New method of mass-producing high-quality DNA molecules“:

The new method is versatile and able to solve problems that currently restrict the production of DNA fragments.

“We’ve used enzymatic production methods to create a system that not only improves the quality of the manufactured oligonucleotides but that also makes it possible to scale up production using bacteria in order to produce large amounts of DNA copies cheaply,” says co-developer Björn Högberg at the Swedish Medical Nanoscience Center, part of the Department of Neuroscience at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden.

The process of bioproduction, whereby bacteria are used to copy DNA sequences, enables the manufacture of large amounts of DNA copies at a low cost. Unlike current methods of synthesising oligonucleotides, where the number of errors increases with the length of the sequence, this new method according to the developers also works well for long oligonucleotides of several hundred nitrogenous bases.

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Quantum dot conduction impacted by stoichiometry, not dangling bonds

Posted by Stephanie C on May 29th, 2013

PbS quantum dot array. Credit: MIT

Quantum dots are semiconducting, nanoscale clusters that show electronic characteristics distinct from both bulk-scale materials and single molecules. Their special characteristics make quantum dots attractive for a broad range of potential applications, including photovoltaics and nanoscale transistors.

The size and shape of quantum dots impact electrical properties and can therefore be used to tune the dots (for example, for absorption/emission of desired wavelengths of light). In the case of photovoltaic cells, the performance of quantum dots has not lived up to theoretical potential, and it was expected that the reason had to do with the presence of dangling bonds at the dot surfaces. But new computational work from the lab of Jeffrey Grossman at MIT indicate that in the case of PbS quantum dots, the reason is stoichiometry. The work is published in Physical Review Letters (abstract) and is described in an article in Energy Harvesting Journal (selected excerpts shown):

In bulk quantities of lead sulfide, the material used for the quantum dots in this study, the ratio (known by chemists as “stoichiometry”) of lead atoms to sulfur atoms is exactly 1-to-1. But in the minuscule quantities of the material used to make quantum dots — which, in this case, were about 5 nanometers, or billionths of a meter, across — this ratio can vary significantly, a factor that had not previously been studied in detail. And, the researchers found, it turns out that this ratio is the key to determining the electrical properties of the material.

When the stoichiometry is a perfect 1-to-1, the quantum dots work best, providing the exact semiconductor behavior that theory predicts. But if the ratio is off in either direction — a bit more lead or a bit more sulfur — the behavior changes dramatically, impeding the solar cell’s ability to conduct charges.

Grossman explains that every atom inside the material has neighboring atoms on all sides, so all of that atom’s potential bonds are used, but some surface atoms don’t have neighbors, so their bonds can react with other atoms in the environment. These missing bonds, sometimes called “dangling bonds,” have been thought to play a critical role in a quantum dot’s electronic properties. As a result, the consensus in the field has been that the best devices will have what is known as full “passivation”: the addition of extra molecules that bind to any loose atomic bonds on the material’s surface. The idea was that adding more of the passivating material (called ligands) would always improve performance, but that didn’t work as scientists had expected: Sometimes it improved performance, but sometimes it made it worse.
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Germanane: germanium's answer to graphane

Posted by Stephanie C on May 15th, 2013

credit: Goldberger et al.

Soon after graphene sheets were being produced on a laboratory scale routinely, researchers began producing the hydrogenated version graphane (with a hydrogen atom on each carbon). This step is one of many approaches aimed at harnessing graphene’s powerful conductivity and is also being explored for hydrogen storage and other potential applications (more info in this 2009 ScienceDaily article From Graphene to Graphane…). Despite the divergence from planarity which naturally accompanies the shift from sp2 to sp3 hybridization, graphane is considered a 2D material.

Brought to our attention by Christine Peterson, a new addition to the family of 2D honeycomb-lattice materials has arrived: germanane. Structurally analogous to graphane, germanane comprises hydrogenated, hexagonally arranged germanium atoms in single (or few) layer sheets. Like silicane and silicene (see companion post Silicene: silicon’s answer to graphene), germanane should have a band gap, possibly allowing it to be implemented sooner than graphene.

While bulk germanium was semi-successfully used to make the first transistors, its low resistivity at higher temperatures and high production costs limited its practical use, and silicon soon became the semiconductor of choice. But going nanoscale may be a game changer, if the right combination of performance, cost, and ease of manufacture can be found.
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Drexler's book tour extends to U.S. May6-9

Posted by Stephanie C on May 4th, 2013

Recently we pointed at a Forbe’s interview with Eric Drexler, in anticipation of his pending new book Radical Abundance.

The book  has shipped, and Drexler’s tour schedule now includes a few stops on the coasts of the U.S:

New York: May 6th

Los Angeles: May 8th & 9th

Seattle: May 9th

Find exact times and locations on Drexler’s website, and find more information about the book from publisher Public Affairs and/or from your favorite book store.

If you’ve been imagining an updated version of Nanosystems, you’re in for a surprise. The book invites us to take a remarkable journey through the personal and educational experiences that led Drexler to contemplate the global future and to develop the foundations and concepts of atomically precise manufacturing, through a surprisingly accessible tour of the nanoscale world, and through a deeply thoughtful discussion of not only crucial realities of revolutionary new technology, but of crucial uncertainties as well.

-Posted by Stephanie C

Silicene: silicon's answer to graphene

Posted by Stephanie C on May 1st, 2013

Credit: Le Lay et al.

**Updates: July 2014 — Research out of Argonne National Lab suggested that silicene may have never actually been successfully synthesized, rather that spectra indicate a mixture of silicon and silicon-substrate alloy; see article on

August 2014 — Research out of Italy suggests that their spectra establish the presence of silicene though not in a monolayer, rather in multilayers sandwiched between oxidized top layers and alloy lower layers; see this article also at which currently contains a link to the full paper. **

On the list of potential post-silicon materials for electronics and chips is none other than silicon. More specifically, silicene — 2D sheets of hexagonally arranged silicon atoms, structurally analogous to graphene and experimentally characterized by physicist Guy Le Lay of Aix-Marseille University in France (2012 abstract here).

While graphene possesses exceptional performance qualities, it can’t be directly swapped in to existing silicon-based industry and technology. As described last year in the ExtremeTech article Silicene discovered: Single-layer silicon that could beat graphene to market:

Unlike silicon (or germanium)*, graphene doesn’t have a bandgap, which makes it very hard to actually build a switching device — such as a transistor — out of it. Researchers have had some luck in introducing a bandgap, but graphene is still a long way away from being used in current silicon processes.

Silicene … should be compatible with silicon-based electronics and the huge, existing semiconductor fabrication processes.

*Speaking of germanium, if you’re wondering whether it’s getting a piece of the action the answer is yes. See the companion post Germanane: germanium’s answer to graphane.

So, while the prospects of graphene-based devices are still tremendous, other materials that might allow more near-term integration into existing systems remain attractive.

But the honeycomb lattice may be silicene’s only resemblance to graphene. In the recent Nature news article Sticky Problem Snares Wonder Material, silicene is described as a “super sticky” material that “crinkles into bumps and ridges.” Before silicene’s theoretical properties can be experimentally tested, stable sheets of silicene need to be fabricated. A number of labs are working on it (find graphics and references in this pdf of a talk by Prof. Le Lay), and silicene is being included in more research programs under the graphene/honeycomb lattice umbrella.

What fascinates me most is the notion that a material on the nanoscale could replace its own bulk-scale counterpart for advanced, future applications – a great example of the wonder of the nanoscale. We may need to revise the term “post-silicon” to “post-bulk-silicon”.
-Posted by Stephanie C