Pursuing this vision, Drexler and Chris Peterson, his wife and professional partner, made the pilgrimage from the Northeast (both hold degrees from MIT) to the West Coast, founding the nonprofit Foresight Institute in Palo Alto in 1986. Their stated goal was to organize discussion of the technical and social implications of what they believe is a foregone conclusion: rapid change in the face of nanotech. The first Foresight meeting was held in October 1989 and attracted about 150 participants. At the first gathering, more than half of the talks covered proposed policy issues, computation theory, societal consequences of nanotech-and, of course, Drexler’s ideas for the assemblers.
Since then, Drexler’s notions have spawned a cottage nanoindustry that includes a Palo Alto-based Institute For Molecular Manufacturing (where he is a research fellow), a startup company, Zyvex, that intends to build Drexler’s assembler, well-attended conferences, a small bookshelf of publications and-most recently-countless Web sites. And, lest you think this is a group far outside the boundaries of science, Drexler’s vision has inspired dedicated followers among numerous computer scientists.
Despite that ever-widening circle of believers, however, Drexler’s ideas have largely failed to win over the scientific mainstream (p. 46). A number of researchers give Drexler and the Foresight Institute credit for generating interest in nanotech, but few experimenters in chemistry, physics or materials science buy the concept of mechanical assemblers inhabiting a microscopic factory floor. “I don’t think that there is any more enthusiasm for most of these ideas now than at the beginning. If anything, less, as the real, science-based expertise in nanofabrication increases,” says Harvard University chemist George Whitesides, a pioneer in molecular self-assembly. “Still, Eric was captivated by the vision early on, and he deserves credit for his willingness to try to imagine what that world might be.”
One pointed criticism of the Foresight Institute is that, in the face of a growing understanding of nanoscale science, Drexler has steadfastly refused to change his original notion of nanotech as being a miniature robotic world. Although Drexler declined repeated requests by TR for an interview, his colleagues defend the assembler notion. Ralph Merkle, for example, a director of Foresight and a computer scientist at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, says self-replicating assemblers with robotic arms moving atoms around remains the most likely route to the nanoworld. “Computer scientists are very comfortable with the idea,” says Merkle. “You can do it on a computer.” He acknowledges, however, it “will take time” to convince many chemists and physicists.
The Foresight Institute has also been tainted in the eyes of mainstream researchers by an association with fringe technological elements. It has, for instance, close ties with the cryonics movement, in which people pay to have themselves frozen immediately after death in the hope that they can eventually be thawed out and returned to the living. Merkle is a director of Alcor Foundation, a nonprofit cryonics business, while Drexler is on the scientific advisory board. (During his after-lunch speech at the meeting, Drexler called the fact that cryonics is not part of the country’s health care policy a “national disgrace.”)
This embrace of a decidedly nonmainstream notion may have alienated some potential allies, but Merkle says it is important to expose people to the consequences of cryonics, a technology he is sure will come about. And, he says, nanotech and cryonics may be linked up in the future. He argues that nanotech will revolutionize the practice of medicine as nanomachines repair damaged tissue. The purchasers of cryonics services, he explains, expect that their mental “software” can eventually be downloaded to the new, improved “hardware.”