Foresight Update 9
A publication of the Foresight Institute
IBM with 35 Atoms
It got international press coverage: two IBM researchers used
a scanning tunneling microscope to fabricate
their company's logo from xenon atoms.
D.M. Eigler and E.K. Schweizer accomplished this feat after
careful consideration of the play of forces between the tungsten
tip of an STM and various candidate substrates and working
materials. They chose a carefully prepared nickel surface as a
substrate and xenon atoms as a working material because the
surface corrugations between rows of nickel atoms are large
enough to keep xenon atoms in place during STM imaging, yet small
enough to permit the xenon atoms to be pulled along the surface
during fabrication. To relocate a xenon atom, the investigators
positioned the STM tip over a xenon atom (using the imaging
mode), then switched to fabrication mode by turning off scanning
and lowering the tip toward the xenon atom until the tunneling
current increased severalfold. The xenon atom, attracted to the
tip, could be dragged by moving the STM tip horizontally.
Reducing the tunneling current retracted the tip, leaving the
atom in a new location on the nickel surface. [Nature
The rush is now on to construct more elaborate objects. In this
connection we note that K.E. Drexler and J.S. Foster have
suggested that probe tips might be made much more versatile and
reliable if equipped with specially constructed molecular tips. [Nature
343:600, 15Feb90]. This would be a first step toward the
"hybrid protoassembler" proposed by Drexler at the First Foresight
Conference on Nanotechnology.
by David M. Berube
In 1986, I was a member of the faculty at Trinity University
in Texas directing their intercollegiate debate program. One day,
Timothy Wilkins, a student debater, returned from the library
with a new book, Engines of
Creation. He showed it to me, and left with it for his
dorm room. The next day, he stormed into my office and demanded I
read it at once. I did and during the next eight months, we
introduced the subjects discussed in Engines into
competitive debate, and ever since then nanotechnology has become
an area of contention in hundreds, if not thousands, of debate
rounds across the nation.
Competitive debate is a laboratory for instruction in public
speaking and argumentation. On every competitive level, this lab
features a series of speeches which center on an agreed-upon
resolution or topic. These topics mainly encompass issues which
examine the causes and consequences of government policies which
attempt to address grievous phenomena: megaissues like the
greenhouse effect, resource depletion, hunger and overpopulation,
medical care, nuclear proliferation, and so on.
When Chris Peterson asked me to write this short piece, she said
she gets many calls from debaters and wants to know how debate
has used information on nanotechnology. The answer to her
question is Engines seemed to have been written for
debaters. Assuredly that was not the case, yet the interface
between the way megaissues were discussed in Engines
and how the same issues are debated was and still is remarkable.
There are three reasons why Engines has been so
popular in debate. First, in debate, rationalistic discussions
are rewarded over incremental ones. For that matter, debate may
be premised on the failure of incremental problem solving. In
debate, we tend to examine problems macroscopically, and the most
successful arguments are from visionaries who reason beyond our
current experience. For example, when a debater pleas for food
assistance for underdeveloped countries to relieve malnutrition,
the knee jerk reaction from a competitor would be to argue that
hunger and starvation are a necessary population check: Malthus
is right. When a debater demands increased personal freedoms, her
opponent will argue liberty begets misguided consumption and
profiteering which doom our ecosystem. In debate, for every
benefit, there is a greater or lesser harm, and it is this
sparring which is the force driving controversy in debate.
From Engines, Tim and I initially discovered a way
to resolve the megaissue that carbon dioxide concentrations were
feeding global warming. Conventional counterargumentation
claiming warming was beneficial was, and still is, inane: rising
mean temperatures increasing the amount of arable land in one
location is grossly outweighed by desertification and flooding
elsewhere. This issue was difficult to mitigate in an argument;
it seemed inevitable and significant. However, when Engines
considered how replicating assemblers could remove carbon dioxide
and reduce the need for fossil fuels, we began to argue
that clean-up could halt the oncoming disaster while
simultaneously reducing our reliance on fossil fuels which also
poisoned our air and streams in addition to its greenhousing
effect. While our opponents could only advocate ways to slow the
accumulation of dangerous levels of CO2 in the
atmosphere (incrementalism), we responded with assemblers that
could reduce CO2 and mitigate its primary
causes forever (rationalism).
Soon after Hapgood's essay appeared reminding us of the
"grey goo" scenario, on-point debating on the merits of
nanotechnology began to occur, but by then, the spring of 1987, I
relocated to the University of Vermont.
During the summer of 1987, I lectured to a group of high school
debaters at a workshop at UVM about nanotechnology and its
utility as a strategy in megaissue debating. These students
returned to their hometowns in August and for the next few
months, my office became inundated with requests for more
information about "all this nanostuff." I responded:
"Read Engines and call FI." I guess they
This brings me to a second reason why the principles of
nanotechnology discussed in the book have become so popular in
competitive debate: It examines problems by reworking the causes
from the bottom-up; it reexamined fundamental premises which have
made many of the world's megaissues impossible to solve.
Debaters have always been intrigued with the systemic causes of
problems, consequently Engines fascinated them. Engines
mooted the conception of technology as large metal beasts spewing
black smoke and klaxing deafening dins when it discussed a tool
which could enhance a person's skills and powers and did not turn
her into a mechanical slave; it liberated and did so
eco-synergistically. Engines mooted bureaucratic
myopia favoring immediate payoff solutions when it entertained a
consciousness shift premised upon foresight and the creative
application of science. Debaters found that Engines
was profound in its worldview.
My third and final reason: Engines was readable by
everyone and only misunderstandable by those who refused to open
their minds, who were not, as Maslow said, being-cognitive.
Nanotechnology was different, if not bizarre--tiny machines
building offspring and tools--but it was fathomable. More
important, its explicative style reads as easily as fiction. High
school students and undergraduates found in Engines
a wonderfully fantastic discussion of technology, a story which
was never intimidating in its presuppositions.
I have judged hundreds of academic debates, and have heard many
in which nanotechnology was an issue: active shields as an SDI
alternative, hypertext to wrest power from ideologically tainted
publishing houses, assemblers to repair cells and makes viruses
benign, to mine asteroids and fabricate space colonies, to clean
air and water pollution including toxic and radioactive wastes
and substitute energy sources which would not hold our
environment hostage to our obsessive need to grow, to reduce the
ravages of aging, to produce inexhaustible food supplies, to
spread wealth, and, most often, to enable us to evade the
entropic nightmare painted by Jeremy Rifkin and others.
More recently, on the last weekend in March 1990, two groups of
intercollegiate debaters held national championships and, at
both, nanotechnology was hailed as a way to insure balanced
economic growth to maintain a competitive posture in the world's
markets and to reduce overdependence on fossil fuels.
As long as debate topics address "megaissues,"
nanotechnology will be an issue. Thanks to the increasing number
of publications featuring articles on nanotechnology, the debates
are becoming more and more sophisticated.
These debaters, young men and women, will be tomorrow's leaders
and it's somewhat heartening to know that when they design
remedies for some of the problems confronting society in the 21st
century, nanotechnology will, at least, receive a serious and
fair discursive treatment.
M. Berube is an Assistant Professor of Speech at the
University of South Carolina, Columbia, and author of many
articles on argumentation, logic, and philosophy.
Users of large commercial computer networks often complain
about difficulty in reaching the nanotechnology newsgroup on
Usenet, called sci.nanotech. Russell Whitaker reports that those
who have CompuServe accounts and wish to receive and contribute
sci.nanotech messages can contact the moderator, Josh Storrs
Hall, by going to the electronic mail area and entering at the
"To:" prompt this address:
>INTERNET:email@example.com. There are a couple of other
addresses which work, and which may show up as headers on
received text. If you have questions, Russell Whitaker can be
contacted through CompuServe at 71750,2413.
Thanks to Nils Andersson and Walter Vannini for offering to
translate into English from German and Italian.
Journal and magazine coverage of topics of interest to Foresight
is booming, as can be told by the number of people we hereby
thank for sending in copies. Please keep sending these--we often
hear of important articles only once. Thanks to Joseph
Bonaventura, Jamie Dinkelacker, Jerry Fass, Darrell Flynn, W.C.
Gaines, Stan and Kiyomi Hutchings, Tony Johnson, Jeff
MacGillivray, Joy Martin, Tom McKendree, Leonard Micko, K.E.
Nelson, Ed Niehaus, Anthony Oberley, Brian D. Ornstedt, John
Papiewski, Jack Powers, Naomi Reynolds, Howard Rheingold, Stuart
E. Scott, Alvin Steinberg, and Tihamer Toth-Fejel.
Thanks for book recommendations go to Jerry Fass and Max
From Foresight Update 9, originally
published 30 June 1990.
Foresight thanks Dave Kilbridge for converting Update 9 to
html for this web page.