Foresight Institute

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The Foresight Institute is a Palo Alto, California-based research non-profit dedicated to promoting the development of nanotechnology (and other emerging technologies).[1] The institute holds conferences on molecular nanotechnology[2][3] and is one of the independent foundations in the nanotechnology area.[4]


The Institute was founded in 1986 by author Christine Peterson,[3] who still serves on the Board of Directors; molecular nanotechnology engineer K. Eric Drexler as president; and space entrepreneur James C. Bennett. Drexler's book, Engines of Creation was one of the founding documents of the Institute. Many of its initial members came from the L5 Society; it was first intended as a smaller, more focused group than L5, but grew rapidly and reached a few thousand members shortly afterwards.[5] In its early days, it was largely responsible for promoting the concept of nanotechnology, before the idea became widespread among researchers. Despite its later fame, nanotech received little investment from government and industry in the early 1990s, a gap Foresight tried to fill through its private fundraising efforts.[6] Named to honor 1965 Nobel Prizewinner in Physics, Richard Feynman, the Foresight Institute Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology was started in 1993, with two prizes being awarded for theory and experimentation every year since 1997.[7]

In 1991, two sister organizations were formed: the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing (IMM) and the Center for Constitutional Issues in Technology (CCIT), with funding from tech entrepreneur Mitch Kapor.[5] CCIT was founded to study policy issues, but communications professor David M. Berube argued in 2005 that it had not accomplished much in this area.[6]

In 1998, Foresight director Christine Peterson coined the term "open source" and presented it to others in a brainstorming session focused on making the development model of free software projects more attractive to businesses not interested in the social activism aspects of the free software movement. The term was adopted for use in promoting the release of the Netscape web browser source code.

The Institute was founded "to guide emerging technologies to improve the human condition" but focused "its efforts upon nanotechnology, the coming ability to build materials and products with atomic precision, and upon systems that will enhance knowledge exchange and critical discussion".[8] In May 2005, the Foresight Institute changed its name to "Foresight Nanotech Institute"[4] and narrowed its mission to "ensure beneficial implementation of nanotechnology." The Institute's goal is to accomplish this by providing balanced, accurate and timely information to help society understand and utilize nanotechnology through public policy activities, publications, guidelines, networking events, tutorials, conferences, roadmaps and prizes."[9]

In June 2009, the institute reverted to its original name, and broadened its mission to "promoting transformative technologies" and "to discover and promote the upsides, and help avoid the dangers, of nanotechnology, AI, biotech, and similar life-changing development."[10]


The mission of Foresight is to promote the development of nanotechnologies, and to reduce the potential for misuse and accidents associated with them.[11] Foresight promotes the use of nanotechnology to provide clean energy, supply water, improve health and longevity, preserve the environment, make information technology available, and enable space settlement.[12] According to David M. Berube, its most notable accomplishment may be the set of guidelines it published for nanotechnological development.[6]

Some scientists have criticized Foresight, and its founder Eric Drexler, for technological utopianism and unrealistic expectations.[13] Stanford researcher Steven Block has called Foresight a "cult of futurists", and said that visions which might resemble science fiction would hold back research progress. Chemist and Nobel laureate Richard Smalley was originally a supporter of Foresight during the early 1990s, before changing his mind and becoming a prominent critic of Foresight and Drexler.[4] A public debate ensued through written papers and letters Drexler-Smalley debate on molecular nanotechnology.


The Foresight Institute has several running prizes, including the annual Feynman Prizes, and the $250,000 Feynman Grand Prize for demonstrating two molecular machines capable of nanoscale positional accuracy and computation.[14] Historically, the prizes have explored four main areas: the behavior of individual molecules, the synthesis of new materials (such as carbon nanotubes), nanobiology and DNA technology, and the design of machines for molecular manufacturing. The prizes have been notable for influencing the direction of nanotechnology research as a field.[7] The Prizes were named in honor of the 1965 Prizewinner in Physics, Richard Feynman, and concepts inspired by his lecture, There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom. Notable amongst the prizewinners is the 2007 Prize in the Experimental category, Fraser Stoddart, who has since received the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on molecular machines. Author Colin Milburn refers to the prize as an example of "fetishizing" their namesake Richard Feynman, due to his prestige as a scientist and his fame among the broader public.[4] A list of Feyman Prizewinners is maintained at the Foresight Institute's archival website.[14]


The Institute carries out workshops each year, attended primarily by scientists, engineers, and students. The subject matter matches molecular nanotechnology and its close relative, atomically precise manufacturing with other transformative technologies, such as energy efficiency, artificial intelligence, programmable matter, and medical applications. In 2016, the Institute initiated the first of a promised series of “Great Debates” on various technical, existential and ethical subjects related of impending outcomes of transformative research and technologies.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Guston, David H. (2010). Encyclopedia of nanoscience and society. London: SAGE. p. 253. ISBN 1452266174. Retrieved 13 July 2017. 
  2. ^ "Foresight Conferences". Retrieved 13 July 2017. 
  3. ^ a b Oliver, By Richard W. (2003). The biotech age : the business of biotech and how to profit from it (2nd ed., rev. ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. p. 86. ISBN 0071414894. Retrieved 13 July 2017. 
  4. ^ a b c d Milburn, Colin (2008). Nanovision: Engineering the future. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. ISBN 0822391481. 
  5. ^ a b McCray, W. Patrick (2012). The visioneers: how a group of elite scientists pursued space colonies, nanotechnologies, and a limitless future. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691139830. 
  6. ^ a b c Berube, David M. Nano-Hype: The Truth Behind the Nanotechnology Buzz. Prometheus Books. ISBN 9781615922369. 
  7. ^ a b Marcovich, Anne; Shinn, Terry (2014). Toward a New Dimension: Exploring the Nanoscale. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198714610. 
  8. ^ "Foresight Institute - Web Archive snapshot as of 2003-Feb-02". Archived from the original on February 2, 2003. 
  9. ^ "Foresight Institute - Web Archive snapshot as of 2005-May-26". Archived from the original on May 26, 2005. 
  10. ^ "Foresight Institute - Web Archive snapshot as of 2009-Jun-06". Archived from the original on June 26, 2009. 
  11. ^ About the Foresight Institute, Foresight Institute, (Retrieved Dec. 24, 2014).
  12. ^ How Close Are We to Real Nanotechnology?, Humanity+, (July 1, 2009).
  13. ^ Byrne (December 8, 1999). "Sidebar: Looking at Foresight". SF Weekly. Retrieved 14 December 2016. 
  14. ^ a b "Nanotechnology Prizes and Awards Sponsored by Foresight Nanotech Institute". Foresight Nanotech Institute. Retrieved 26 December 2016. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Smith, Richard Hewlett. "A Policy Framework for Developing a National Nanotechnology Program", Master of Science thesis, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 1998, available at Digital Library and Archives

External links[edit]