Sidebar: Looking at Foresight

In the brave new dot-com world of Los Altos, anything at all seems possible, and the future is just a dial tone away. The window of a toy store called Imaginarium promotes a Dazzling Diamonds kit that promises to "turn powder into diamonds in a day." Inside Imaginarium, the store clerks are called toyologists, and boxes bear labels such as "Brain Quest: It's Okay to be Smart!"

At a Main Street cafe called Marjolaine, Chris Peterson, executive director of the Foresight Institute, a futurist organization dedicated to promoting the manufacture of molecule-sized machines, sits down for coffee. Peterson, 41, is married to K. Eric Drexler, an engineer who has written books on the building of machines from atoms and who is perhaps the world's most quoted authority on nanotechnology. Since 1986, when he wrote the Old Testament of nanotechnology, Engines of Creation, Drexler has become almost a cult figure, leading a charge on the future that claims the answer to most of humanity's problems lies in the building of tiny machines that can turn dirt into food (or, if you prefer, cell phones). In 1992, Drexler wrote another book, Nanosystems, that went beyond general predictions about nanotechnology to detail technical particulars of coming nanomachines.

Drexler's books are full of drawings of "self-assembling" gears, bearings, pistons, cogs, and robot arms made of carbon atoms (or, in his terminology, "diamondoid," a material that will be as strong as diamonds, which are also composed of carbon atoms). Drexler's writings are replete with engineering formulas used to calculate stresses and strains on large structures, such as bridges. He uses these big-world formulas, which are derived from the laws of classical physics, to predict the tensile strengths of his diamondoids. The very different rules of quantum mechanics do not seem to have been taken into account.

Drexler founded the Foresight Institute in 1986, and since then his predictions of an astonishing nanoworld-to-come have been reported in numerous major publications, including Time, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the South China Morning Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle. But a half-dozen prominent researchers at major universities have told SF Weekly that because Drexler's visions take no account of quantum effects, they are not serious scientific presentations. And in 1996, the respected magazine Scientific American lambasted the Foresight Institute's claims about nanotechnology, calling the institute's offerings "cargo cult science."

Drexler declined SF Weekly's requests for interviews, but Peterson, who administers the Foresight Institute, agreed to answer questions. She acknowledges that quantum mechanics plays no part in the nanotech vision of the institute, asserting that knowledge of quantum theory is not relevant to what she terms "molecular manufacturing" because it "only affects electrons, not atoms." (Most serious scientists disagree, insisting, emphatically, that quantum mechanical effects rule existence at the atomic and subatomic level.)

Peterson admits that Drexler has not constructed a nanostructure of any sort, much less a nanomachine. In fact, the Foresight Institute does not appear to have workable ideas about how to build one of the many nanomachines they design on their commercially available computer-aided design programs. Peterson calls Drexler's computer drawings of molecules "computational modeling." (Thomas W. Kenny, a Stanford University assistant professor of mechanical engineering, says that although such computer programs can be useful teaching tools, they lie "somewhere between a real model and a video game" in terms of scientific usefulness.)

There is a huge gap between the chimerical visions of Foresight's engineering schematics and the extraordinary nanorealities shaping up inside the research labs of prominent Bay Area experimentalists. Foresight's annual conferences on nanotechnology are attended by professionally curious nanoscientists, as well as non-scientists, but nanoscience and -technology have passed by the technical capabilities of the Foresight Institute at quantum mechanical speeds, leaving decades of Drexler's futurist predictions in their wake.

Peterson seems to sense Foresight's technical obsolescence, even if the popular press has yet to catch on. After delivering a well-practiced media presentation that does not connect Drexler's toylike drawings to scientific principles relevant to nanotechnology, Peterson says Foresight is turning its attention to the social implications of nanotechnology. She says she and her husband fear that the U.S. government is moving to monopolize the development of nanotechnology and, possibly, pervert it to evil ends. "We must never let self-replicating nanomachines loose in the wild," she adds, "where they can copy the wild things in the environment."

-- P.B.

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