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Tim O'Reilly on Nanotechnology at the Foresight Gathering

by Tim O'Reilly

The weekend of April 27-28, I spoke at the Foresight Senior Associates Gathering in Palo Alto. Foresight focuses on nanotechnology and related topics, including advanced software and human life extension. Here's my recap of the talks I attended:

Conference Introduction

Christine Peterson, President of the Foresight Institute, introduced the gathering.

The thrust of her talk was captured in her closing lines:

"If you're trying to look ahead long term and it looks like science fiction, you might be wrong. But if you're trying to look ahead long term and it doesn't look like science fiction, you're definitely wrong."

Leading up to that point (which was hammered home by succeeding speakers), she made a number of interesting observations. I've captured the ones I found most interesting (this is not a complete summary of the talk):

Ralph Merkle: Recent Achievements in Nanotechnology

Before going into his list of recent achievements, Ralph gave a few introductory remarks:

Ralph went on from there to discuss what he thought were some significant recent achievements. Note that he didn't supply all of the URLs linked to here. I've Googled for what I think are the appropriate links, but I may not always be right.

Merkle went on from there to discuss what we need to do. We have to start with the goal, then work backwards to what we need to achieve it, much like retrosynthetic analysis in chemistry. He gave the illustration of something he called a respirocyte -- a compressed oxygen molecule -- that could theoretically be injected in quantity into the bloodstream and that would then provide oxygen for an hour. This is a thing of value that we "could do" once we have the basic tech. We need more examples like this to inspire research on "how to" capabilities.

In particular, we need systems designs for molecular manufacturing. Here are two systems architectures currently being explored:

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But this is just the tip of the iceberg. We need more molecular manufacturing systems designs. The problem is that development times are more than 10 years, most companies' planning horizons are less than 10 years, and research funding is not focused on systems.

Merkle closed with an admonitory story: Babbage had designed a stored program computer back in 1842; computers were not reinvented until a century later. That delay was not fundamental or necessary. You can get long delays if you don't pursue a technology aggressively. Nanomolecular manufacturing is possible, but will we have the will to pursue it?

During the Q&A, someone (from HP, if I recall), asked if getting to computers didn't depend on vacuum tubes. Merkle replied that Babbage's mechanical design wasn't adopted because it was too slow, and human labor was cheaper. But he missed a technology that was available that could have made a faster computer, even then. Someone might have realized it didn't have to be mechanical, could have been done with relays. There were some other designs within the design space that could have been explored. Technology can describe possibilities, but it can't force people to choose them.

(Frederick Turner,who was sitting next to me, quietly pointed out another "missed opportunity" even longer ago. Hero of Alexandria first invented a steam engine almost 2000 years before the technology was widely adopted.)

Another question: Where will products first appear? Answer: Computers will be the first product that people will focus on. People already understand, accept the idea of big advances there. We should also look to materials science - strong, light materials (buckytubes specifically) - and medical applications.

Ray Kurzweil -- Technology in the 21st Century, An Imminent Intimate Merger

"I'm an inventor, and that's what made me interested in trend analysis: Inventions need to make sense in the world where you finish a project, not the world in which you start the project"

Some tidbits:

Stewart Brand: Why Long Now/Long Bets

In his talk, Stewart (originally famous for the iconic Whole Earth Catalog) assumed that the audience was already familiar with the Long Now Foundation; his talk focused on why he's created a follow-on Long Bets Foundation. If you aren't familiar with the Long Now, definitely visit their Web site. In addition to the general information there, be sure to check out Brian Eno's account of where the name came from, "The Big Here and the Long Now." (I heard Brian give this as a talk a few years ago, when he was helping publicizeStewart's book, The Clock of the Long Now. Both the article and the book are well worth a read.)

Here's a brief synopsis of the talk.

I skipped out of the afternoon sessions, to go to Kevin Kelly's birthday party instead.

Sunday Morning Talks

The Foresight Guidelines on Nanotechnology

Neil Jacobstein of the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing gave a report on the Foresight Guidelines for responsible nanotechnology.

Especially with the current backlash from 9/11, and the fear of out-of-control self replication (the "grey goo"), it's important to do some "meme engineering." Nanotechnology advocates are still fighting the old war of convincing people that nano is possible, while the new issue is fighting the idea that it's dangerous and that the risks outweigh the benefits.

According to Jacobstein, the risk of not pursuing nanotechnology research is actually higher. A growing world population with increased affluence requires this for basic maintenance of the environment, if nothing else, since only nano offers a real hope of low-impact affluence.

There's also the risk that if we don't do it others will. Criminalizing nano and biotech (as in stem cell and cloning research) is possible. But the counter-meme is that there's a global market. There's more risk if nano is driven underground.

There is a future risk of abuse by terrorism. Unfortunately there are no guidelines to avoid that. There is always a cycle of attack and defense. However, the focus with regard to terrorism should be accountability, transparency, and so forth, with regard to research. The real way to address the risk is to deal with the horrible conditions many people live in, to alleviate the reasons for terrorism. And if nano lives up to its long-term promise, it may be the best way to do that.

There's a worry that nano will lead to uncertain futures. However, we a facing a known bad future.

There's a worry that we are usurping nature or God. But current technology does a lousy job of interacting with nature, so nano won't be worse. And in fact, the current situation will get worse as more people adopt our current tech.

Here are eight things nanotech advocates have to do:

My Own Talk

My own talk focused on the architectural implications of open versus closed systems, and lessons from the development of Unix and the Internet. Innovation best flourishes with open architectures, in which any individual can bring something to the party. An open architecture doesn't mean that there are no rules; in fact, it usually means that there are strong, clear rules. And one of the rules is something like "play nicely with others." This is going to be important for the world we're building, in which there will, in effect, be a global network "computer." The architecture of that computer's operating system (the subject of our Emerging Technology conference, Building the Internet Operating System) is the environment in which nanotech research and software will be developed, so it's worth paying attention.

This was a version of my usual stump speech, so I won't report in detail here. For numerous other versions, see my archive.

I kicked off the talk by reading a wonderful email message from Mike O'Dell, the former CTO of UUNET. Mike had sent in this message in response to a discussion of the spread of wireless community networks. Mike's message perfectly captures the main thrust of my talk, and puts it freshly, so it's worth quoting in full:

Ah yes -- once again, we see the power of transition from centralized planning to biological process.

Biology will out-innovate the centralized planning "Department of Sanctified New Ideas" approach every time, if given half a chance. Once the law of large numbers kicks in, even in the presence of Sturgeon's Law ("90% of everything is crap."), enough semi-good things happen that the progeny are at least interesting, and some are quite vigorous.

"Nature works by conducting a zillion experiments in parallel and most of them die, but enough survive to keep the game interesting." (The "most of them die" part was, alas, overlooked by rabid investors in the latter 90s.)

This is how the commercial Internet took off, and this remains the central value of that network --

You don't need permission to innovate.

You get an idea and you can try it quickly. If it fails, fine -- one more bad idea to not reinvent later. But if it works, it takes off and can spread like wildfire. Instant messaging is a good example, even though ultimately complicated by ego and hubris. Various "peer-to-peer" things an even better one.

Wifi is evolving the same way. A bit of great enabling technology made possible by a fortuitous policy accident in years long past, a few remarkable hacks, a huge perceived value proposition (and I don't mean "free beer"), and presto! You have a real party going on in the Petri dish.

Clarifying note: during my tenure at UUNET, I described the real business as operating a giant Petri dish -- we kept it warm, we pumped in nutrients, and we made it bigger when it filled up. And people paid us money to sit in the dish and see what happened.

And so it goes.

From this launching pad, I reviewed some of the lessons of open source -- create an architecture of participation (a la Unix and the Internet -- new programs can be first-class citizens without anyone's permission), create a modular architecture so things aren't too complicated at any one point, and remember that giving away "intellectual property" can be a strategic choice that advances adoption of a technology. Holding things too close to your vest can hold you back.

In particular, I addressed some of the concerns about the erosion of the public domain that are the subject of Lessig's book, The Future of Ideas. As applied to nanotechnology, it's easy to imagine a world in which the fundamental design of "things" is considered intellectual property. (We already see patents on organisms.) We could be facing a land grab like nothing we've ever seen if the promise of nanotech comes true, and we haven't resolved the IP issues. It's better to imagine a world in which designs for things are swapped a la Napster than one in which you have to pay a tax to someone who filed the paperwork first. And of course, the future is likely to have a mix of both these approaches.

David D. Friedman: Strong Cryptography Meets The Transparent Society

David D. Friedman, a professor at Santa Clara School of Law, and author of the books The Machinery of Freedom, Hidden Order: The Economics of Everyday Life, Price Theory, and the forthcoming Future Imperfect (a draft of which is online at daviddfriedman.com), gave afascinating talk about the balance between privacy and transparency.

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About eight years ago, Friedman got interested in ideas of the cypherpunks. He wrote a paper -- "Strong Privacy: The Promises and Perils of Strong Encryption." The basic argument was that strong crypto and digital signatures create a world in which we can have online identity without having to reveal real-world identity -- we can have both anonymity and recognition. This set of technologies has some interesting consequences, both good and bad.

But then Brin's Transparent Society portrays a very different world, in which surveillance is so much better that there's no privacy. Crypto gives a level of privacy people have never known. Surveillance gives a level of transparency we've never known; privacy through obscurity cannot survive modern data processing -- face/image recognition. Brin's solution is that everyone gets to watch. (We watch the authorities as they watch us.)

Friedman's question is: how do the crypto and transparency worlds relate? Strong encryption doesn't help if there's a mosquito-sized camera watching my keystrokes -- but we can imagine mechanisms to make that more difficult. That's one of the critical variables. If you can monitor the interface, then crypto isn't any good. But if you can't, then transparency isn't. So if we get to interfaces like a direct brain interface, or maybe even just subvocalization of some kind, surveillance is less effective.

In short, cyberspace privacy and real world transparency can defeat the other to some extent. A lot depends on the answer to the question: How big is cyberspace? If all it consists of is sending text messages back and forth, it's not very interesting. But as virtual reality (VR) becomes more significant ... VR is now brute force through the senses -- eventually, it will be direct to the brain. You can think of this as cracking the dreaming problem -- how does the brain encode sensory signals? We've all experienced sensory sensations when we sleep -- that's "deep VR" (a term Friedman prefers to "full immersion VR").

If we have a protected interface, and most of what happens to us that matters happens in cyberspace, Brin's vision doesn't matter.

A few other random tidbits that came up in digressions from the main talk:

Tim O'Reilly is the founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media, Inc., thought by many to be the best computer book publisher in the world. In addition to Foo Camps ("Friends of O'Reilly" Camps, which gave rise to the "un-conference" movement), O'Reilly Media also hosts conferences on technology topics, including the Web 2.0 Summit, the Web 2.0 Expo, the O'Reilly Open Source Convention, the Gov 2.0 Summit, and the Gov 2.0 Expo. Tim's blog, the O'Reilly Radar, "watches the alpha geeks" to determine emerging technology trends, and serves as a platform for advocacy about issues of importance to the technical community. Tim's long-term vision for his company is to change the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators. In addition to O'Reilly Media, Tim is a founder of Safari Books Online, a pioneering subscription service for accessing books online, and O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, an early-stage venture firm.

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