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Foresight Update 39

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

Foresight Update 39 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5


Inside Foresight

by Chris Peterson

Chris PetersonAt the most recent Nanoschmooze, one topic was "doesn't it feel to you as though we're seeing the early stages of Singularity?" Since then, I've been asking around, and quite a few people whose judgment I respect have been saying yes, that's what today's situation feels like to them. It seems that the more time people are able to invest in surveying current progress across a wide range of fields, the more likely they are to agree with this.

For the non-SF readers out there: "Singularity" is a term from Vernor Vinge's novels, used to indicate an extraordinarily rapid and radical change in technology, so radical that life can change beyond recognition.

It's easy to see why this feeling is growing. Besides the run-up to nanotechnology, we seem to be seeing exponential change in other areas, including:

  • Medicine—biotech, the Human Genome Project's impending completion, and advances in life extension and anti-aging research promise boggling advances over the next few years. If slowed in the U.S. by the FDA, these advances can continue elsewhere.
  • Sensing & surveillance—cheap surveillance means we are increasingly often being recorded; cheap computing means the data can be correlated. You can now buy a handheld electronic odor detector from Cyrano Sciences that can pick up the faint, tell-tale scents of diabetes or lung cancer—it's $10,000 now, but that will drop. If you're hoping to keep illnesses secret for long, forget it.
  • Privately-issued digital encrypted money—we already have digital encrypted money (e.g. Paypal), privately-issued currency (e.g. e-gold), and privately-issued pseudo-money (e.g. frequent flyer miles). Soon, these systems will overlap, freeing the financial world from observation, for better and/or worse.
  • Yet more Internet—the explosion of the Internet continues to break down national barriers. China hopes to gain the economic benefits without the freedoms normally associated with the Internet; this looks difficult to do. As the world's youth continues to be absorbed into a global culture, it will be harder for national leaders to con them into going off to fight those they grew up with online.

The interactions of these with human-based systems such as governments are so complex they make one's head hurt. But we are going to have to (try to) live through these changes, so looking forward is necessary, no matter how scary.

How to make it less intimidating, even fun? Join with like-minded folks in person to explore the coming weirdnesses, as we gather at these events:

  • Dynamic Visions Conference, Feb. 19-21, 2000, Santa Clara, Calif., Many Foresight members came last time, as shown by the photos and quotes on the brochure for this year. If you like fast change, or are determined to surf it, this is your crowd.
  • Foresight Senior Associates Gathering, probably May 19-21, 2000, Silicon Valley. Expected to top even last year's amazing Group Genius event. This sold out early last year—to qualify, sign up as a Senior Associate early (i.e. now). If you can make it to only one meeting per year, this is the one.
  • Alcor Life Extension Conference, June 17-18, 2000, Monterey, Calif. Sure to be the best meeting ever on radical life extension technologies, e.g. cryostasis. If you like the idea of living a really long time, this is your group. Speakers include Ralph Merkle, Greg Stock, and Eric Drexler.
  • 8th Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology, Nov. 2-5, 2000, Bethesda, Maryland. Our annual meeting for the techies to catch up on the avalanche of nanotech-related advances across disciplines, and our first East Coast technical conference.

It's hard for most of us to take the coming changes seriously on a day-to-day basis—far easier to put off integrating our theoretical understanding into practical action plans. We need our morale bolstered by allies undergoing the same drastic worldview changes. Ironically, there is still no substitute for face-to-face contact for us primates attempting to grapple with the coming less-primate-oriented world.

Foresight is here for you as you struggle with the ongoing task of anticipating and adapting to extreme technological change, but we need your support. It's the time of year to dig deep into your pocket, or e-gold account, and make a difference by donating to your favorite Foresighted charity. Three favorite ways to give are:

  • Be challenged by the Challenge Grant. Each year around this time, some of our major donors post a really big matching fund for Foresight—but we have to raise an equal amount in order to earn it. Since it's usually tens of thousands of dollars, this isn't easy. We post a status report on the web so you can monitor our progress and step in at the right time. Watch our home page.
  • To win out over the tax man, at least in the U.S., donate appreciated stock. You deduct the current value of the stock without paying capital gains on the appreciation. Fun to do, especially if you don't like how your tax dollars are spent.
  • The most popular way: join as a Senior Associate. This group deserves the term "community"; for contacts, new friends, and the latest inside information, this is a proven way for Foresight members to get more involved.

That's it from me for the 1900s. Let's hope that when the year starts with a 2, people will be more able to think ahead. Given how things seem to go, though, the side effect may be that we suddenly have more trouble remembering what happened in years starting with 1.

Christine Peterson is Executive Director of Foresight Institute.

Foresight Update 39 - Table of Contents


Ralph Merkle, A Leading MNT Theorist, Joins Zyvex

Zyvex LLC announced in early October that Dr. Ralph Merkle has joined the company in the newly created position of Principal Fellow. Merkle is a leading figure in the developing field of molecular nanotechnology.

During the past decade, as a researcher at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), Merkle conducted a number of pioneering theoretical studies into the design and operation of nanotechnology systems. He also collaborated with Dr. K. Eric Drexler of the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing in detailed design studies of model parts and assemblies for molecular nanotechnology devices. Dr. Merkle remains a member of the Foresight Institute Board of Advisors.

Merkle is also known for co-inventing public key cryptography, winning the Kanellakis Award from the ACM in 1997. He has published a number of important papers on nanotechnology, last year winning the prestigious annual Feynman Prize.

Jim Von Ehr, President & CEO of Zyvex, said "We've known Ralph for several years, and are absolutely thrilled to have a person of his stature join us. His research has pointed to a number of promising mechanisms by which nanotechnology might be achieved, and in conjunction with our excellent research scientists and laboratory, I'm quite confident we'll achieve our nanotechnology goals."

Merkle, commenting on the move, said "Nanotechnology is developing more rapidly than expected. I've been looking for a place where I can get more directly involved in making it happen, and Zyvex has demonstrated their total commitment to that goal. The decision to leave Xerox PARC after ten years was difficult, but the chance to get involved in a serious startup in such a major role was irresistible."

Merkle has spoken about nanotechnology to numerous groups, including the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and the U.S. Congress. He presented his most recent paper, "Molecular building blocks and development strategies for molecular nanotechnology," at the Seventh Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology, held October 15-17, 1999 (see lead story).

Zyvex, based in Richardson, Texas, was started in 1997 with the goal of building the key tool for creating molecular nanotechnology, the assembler. The privately held company is engaged in research and development of molecular nanotechnology, concentrating on what it believes to be the three key technologies for the field: mechanochemistry, nanopositioning, and system design.

Note: Merkle's nanotechnology web site, one of the most extensive and informative available on molecular nanotechnology, has moved from its former location on the Xerox PARC servers (at The site will now be hosted by Zyvex at

Foresight Update 39 - Table of Contents


Annual Feynman Prizes, Distinguished Student Award Presented During Seventh Foresight Conference

The 1999 Feynman Prizes in Nanotechnology were awarded during the Seventh Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology. The 1999 Foresight Distinguished Student Award was also presented during the conference, which was held October 15 -17 in Santa Clara, California.

This year's recipients of the annual Feynman Prizes were Phaedon Avouris of IBM for experimental work, and a team led by William A. Goddard III at Caltech for theoretical work.

Dr. Avouris, of the IBM T.J.Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, NY, is a leader in the development of carbon nanotubes for potential computing device applications. This work is considered directly on the pathway to molecular-scale computation.

Professor William Goddard, Dr. Tahir Cagin, and Ms. Yue Qi from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California shared the theory prize for their work in modeling the operation of molecular machine designs. Proposed designs for future molecular machine systems can be tested today on powerful supercomputers using sophisticated programs that accurately model the laws of chemistry, giving us a clearer picture both of what works and what does not. Goddard's group, which operates out of the Materials and Process Simulation Center at Caltech, does some of the most advanced modeling possible today.

Goddard, Cagin, Qi, and Avouris
1999 Feynman Prize Winners
W.Goddard, T.Cagin,Y.Qi, P.Avouris

The Feynman Prizes include a cash award of $5000 for each winning individual or team. The two prizes are awarded each year to the researchers whose recent work has most advanced the development of molecular nanotechnology.

Goel and Jacobstein
1999 Student Award Winner, A.Goel with N.Jacobstein,IMM Chairman

They are named in honor of the late Nobel Prizewinning physicist Richard Feynman, whose 1959 talk "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom" inspired many researchers to pursue the ultimate in miniaturization. In that visionary talk, delivered at Caltech in 1959, Feynman said, "The problems of chemistry and biology can be greatly helped if our ability to see what we are doing, and to do things on an atomic level, is ultimately developed—a development which I think cannot be avoided."

A committee of previous Feynman Prize winners was invited to select this year's honorees:

  • M. Reza Ghadiri, Scripps Research Institute
  • James Gimzewski, IBM Research Division, Zurich
  • Ralph Merkle, Zyvex LLC (formerly of Xerox PARC)
  • Charles B. Musgrave, Chemical Engineering, Stanford
  • Nadrian C. Seeman, New York University
  • Deepak Srivastava, MRJ Technology Solutions, Inc. at NASA Ames Research Center

Also presented at the conference was the 1999 Foresight Distinguished Student Award. The winner was Anita Goel, an MD/PhD candidate at the Harvard/MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology and also a PhD candidate at Harvard's Physics Department. Ms. Goel was selected for her work on using optical and magnetic "tweezers" to probe the real-time single molecule dynamics of motor enzymes "dancing on DNA."

The Foresight Institute Distinguished Student award provides a $1500 grant to the college graduate or undergraduate student whose work is deemed most notable in advancing the development and understanding of nanotechnology. Ms. Goel was chosen as the winner by Neil Jacobstein, Chairman of the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing, in consultation with the Foresight Board of Directors.

The award, with funds provided this year through the generosity of entrepreneur Jim Von Ehr of Zyvex LLC., and Ravi Pandya of IECommerce Inc., is intended primarily to enable the winning student to attend Foresight Institute's annual Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology.

Both Dr. Avouris and Ms. Goel were also nominated for the World Technology Awards in Materials, along with Robert A. Freitas Jr, a Research Fellow at the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing (see story).

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From Foresight Update 39, originally published 30 December 1999.


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