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Nanotechology 3 - Small talk with Ralph C Merkle Ralph C...

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Small talk with Ralph C. Merkle. Ralph C. Merkle is a key advocate of molecular engineering (nanotechnology), a cutting-edge science that involves rearranging molecules in order to create self-replicating manufacturing systems. Merkle was a research scientist at Xerox PARC from 1988 - 1999. He is currently an advisor to the Foresight Institute and a principal fellow at Zyvex. UBIQUITY: Bill Joy's recent Wired article on the perils of today's advanced technologies -- including nanotechnology -- has certainly received a lot of attention, and we did a follow-up interview with him in Ubiquity. What are your thoughts on that subject? RALPH C. MERKLE: Well, certainly the idea that nanotechnology would raise concerns is something that actually was a major impetus for the founding of the Foresight Institute back in 1986 -- and by 1989, Foresight had its first technical conference on nanotechnology, and in fact Bill Joy spoke at that meeting. So one of the things that's a bit surprising is that Bill's concerns about nanotechnology seem to be quite recent -- just the last year or two -- even though the understanding that this particular technology was going to be very powerful and would raise significant concerns has been around for at least a couple of decades. UBIQUITY: Why don't you take a moment now to tell us about the Foresight Institute? MERKLE: The Foresight Institute ( http://www.foresight.org/guidelines/index.html ) was created primarily to guide the development of nanotechnology, and it was founded in large part because, when you look at where the technology is going, you reach the conclusion that, though it has great potential for good, there are also some concerns which need to be addressed. We've been having a series of gatherings at Foresight now for some years where Senior Associates (people who have pledged to support the Foresight Institute) can get together informally and off the record and discuss the various issues. UBIQUITY: What are the meetings like? MERKLE: The most recent gathering had over 250 people -- including Bill Joy, as a matter of fact -- and one of the sessions was a discussion of the Foresight guidelines for safe development of nanotechnology. A year and a half ago we had a workshop where we discussed the guidelines and worked out an initial draft, which was discussed at the 1999 gathering at Foresight, and then further modified and updated and then discussed again at the most recent gathering. UBIQUITY: What do you think would explain the sudden increase of concern about this?
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MERKLE: Well, I can't really address the specifics of Bill Joy's situation. I do know that nanotechnology is an idea that most people simply didn't believe, even though the roots of it go back to a lecture by Richard Feynman in 1959 ( http://www.zyvex.com/nanotech/feynman.html ). That was a very famous talk in which he basically said the laws of physics should allow us to arrange things molecule by molecule and even atom by atom, and that at some point it was inevitable that we would develop a technology that would let us do this. I don't think that it was taken very seriously at that
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