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Foresight Institute: studying transformative technologies

Founded in 1986, Foresight was the first organization to educate society about the benefits and risks of nanotechnology. At that time, nanotechnology was a little-known concept.

Today, nanotechnology research is widespread, and scientific knowledge of the molecular world is advancing rapidly. Enabling technologies ranging from MEMS and NEMS to molecular biology are developing at a steady pace. At the same time, other technologies with a potential for major transformative effects are beginning to show accelerating feedback interactions with nanotech. A prominent example is artificial intelligence, which is being informed by knowledge from neuroscience gained by increasingly fine-grained measuring and sensing capabilities. AI, along with computer modeling in general, will greatly accelerate the development of nanotech -- indeed, molecular experiments are already being planned, executed, and interpreted by machine.

These converging technological capabilities bid fair to change the world in radical ways in the coming decades -- radical, but not unforseeable. Foresight sees its charter and tradition as using all the intellectual tools available, from history to computer modeling, to help understand changing parameters these new technologies will provide to the human condition.

Foresight is a member-supported organization. Our membership, including over 14,000 individuals and a growing number of corporations, is diverse demographically and geographically. They are interested in ensuring that the future of nanotechnology unfolds for the benefit of all. These concerned individuals include scientists, engineers, business people, investors, publishers, artists, ethicists, policy makers, interested laypersons, and students from grammar school to graduate level.

Foresight ® is a 501c3 nonprofit organization. Donations are tax-deductible in the US to the full extent provided by law.

Open Source Sensing Initiative Launched

Preserving security and civil liberties in the Sensor Age

Palo Alto, CA – June 8, 2009 – A new open source-style project to promote Open Source Sensing has been started, with the goal of bringing the benefits of a bottom-up, decentralized approach to sensing for security and environmental purposes.

"The intent of the project is to take advantage of advances in sensing to improve both security and the environment, while preserving — even strengthening — privacy, freedom, and civil liberties," said Christine Peterson, coiner of the term 'open source software.' "We have a unique opportunity to steer today's emerging sensing/surveillance technologies in positive directions, before they become widespread."

"Cheap, ubiquitous sensing has the potential to turn the worlds of privacy and civil rights upside-down," said Brad Templeton, a futurist and civil rights activist who chairs the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "No easy solution stands out, but the quest for an answer to these problems — by learning from the bottom-up approaches of the open source community — may provide some water in the desert."

Participation is welcome from individuals and organizations, both non-profit and for-profit. The project is coordinated by Foresight Institute, a non-profit 501(c)3 organization focused on transformative technologies.

Link to website:

About Foresight Institute

Foresight Institute is a leading think tank and public interest organization focused on transformative future technologies. Founded in 1986, its mission is to discover and promote the upsides, and help avoid the dangers, of nanotechnology, AI, biotech, and similar life-changing developments. Foresight provides balanced, accurate and timely information to help society understand nanotechnology through publications, public policy activities, roadmaps, prizes, and conferences. Contact: Christine Peterson tel +1 (650) 289-0860 ext 255

Foresight Making News

Feynman Prize Nominations Sought for 2009

Foresight Honors Researchers in Feynman's Tradition

Richard P. Feynman

In 1959, in his seminal talk There's Plenty of room at the Bottom, Richard Feynman offered two prizes for developments leading to a nanoscale technology: one for a very tiny motor, and one for very compact writing. The Foresight Institute is proud to have been designated to carry on the tradition of offering prizes which lead to a mature nanotechnology.

Each year, two prizes, $5000 each, are offered for the best advances in Theory and Experiment respectively. (The 2008 Experimental winner was James M. Tour of Rice University; the Theory winner was George C. Schatz of Northwestern University.)

Nominations are now open for the 2009 prizes. For more information, see the prize nominations details page.

Other Foresight prize nominations are open as well.

From Here to There: Nanotechnology Roadmap

Foresight Institute and Battelle Unveil a Technology Roadmap for Productive Nanosystems

Roadmap cover imageMenlo Park, CA – The potential for nanotechnology to "build molecule-by-molecule" has been greatly discussed with one question invariably being asked: How do we get from here to there?

The Foresight Institute, a leading nanotechnology think tank and public interest organization, and Battelle, a leading global research and development organization, have officially unveiled "Productive Nanosystems: A Technology Roadmap." Productive nanosystems are molecular-scale systems that make other useful materials and devices that are nanostructured.

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What Industry Experts are Saying

To download Roadmap for Productive Nanosystems files:

Remembering the First Foresight Conference

Nanotechnology as seen from 20 years ago

The neat, clear vision of nanotechnology we had in 1989 rested on two key aspects that would make it a transformative, rather than merely an evolutionary, technology:

  • The ability to construct and observe at the atomic scale, and the construction of machines at that scale, taking advantage of various phenomena
  • These machines could be production machinery for more machines, shortening capital formation times and increasing economic growth rates

The reality of nanotechnology is shaping up differently from the neat visions of those times, but shaping up it is. There is substantial coverage of the first point today: the techniques for manipulating and observing at the molecular scale are well advanced over 1989. There are things that are arguably machines as well: by some definitions, the last two generations of computer processors have been flat-out nanotechnology. On the atomically precise front, which is closer to what we think really makes a difference as far as nanotechnology is concerned, an increasing proportion of work involves nanostructures with electronic or catalytic properties that perform useful functions.

On the second point there remains an odd dichotomy. Researchers working from the direction of biosystems understand and use the autogenous properties of biomolecular components (e.g. polymerases) and use them as a matter of course. Those coming from the chemistry/surface physics direction, however, don't seem to have picked up on it, or at least haven't managed to make the right tools yet.

The bottom line is that 20 years on, the world has picked up strongly on one of the main legs of the nanotech vision, working at atomic scale and precision. The other one, autogenous systems, has been sorely neglected.

In some sense, the two legs of the nanotech vision are the same two properties of life that make living things so different from non-living ones: they have mechanism that is atomically precise and works on that scale; and they reproduce themselves. Besides life, autogenous systems in the real world range from the simple physical models of machine shops that make parts for shop machines, to the memetic ecosystem of ideas that is science itself. Questions that seem like mere technical details, such as growth rates and feedstock closure, turn out to be crucial in understanding major effects ranging from the possibility of gray goo to the prospect of economic displacement. A better understanding of autogeny in software is likely to give us more robust systems and ultimately, true artificial intelligence, since a learning mind is clearly autogenous.

Foresight was a thought leader in 1989 because we had a vision that allowed us to see future possibilities, opportunities and dangers alike, in ways that were not generally apprehended. That is still true. The world at large has picked up on the ``atomic scale'' leg of the vision, but hasn't understood the importance of the autogenous systems one.

The first Foresight Conference was notable, among other things, because it was extremely interdisciplinary. Working at the atomic scale involved pulling together knowledge from many branches of physics, chemistry, biology, and other physical sciences. Leading the way in the unfinished business of autogeny will likewise involve pulling together knowledge from a wide variety of fields, ranging from biology and evolution to computer science (consider von Neumann's classic study of self-reproducing automata) to economics.

This year, for the 20th anniversary of that first groundbreaking conference, Foresight is organizing a new conference to concentrate on the principles, techniques, and impacts (social and economic) of autogenous systems, from nanofactories to self-improving AIs. Your suggestions and help will be invaluable in making it a success.

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