Video: 21st-century challenges

By Alan Boyle Science editor
updated 2/15/2008 5:08:31 PM ET 2008-02-15T22:08:31

BOSTON - After a year of deliberation, an all-star team of technologists on Friday laid out their list of the 21st century's top engineering challenges — a list that lifts engineers out of their geeky stereotypes and puts them at the forefront of change.

The Grand Challenges for Engineering call for countering global warming, harnessing nuclear fusion, heading off terrorism, rebuilding cities and reverse-engineering the brain. And those are just a few of the 14 items on the to-do list.

"Meeting some of these is simply imperative for our survival on this planet," Charles Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering, told reporters. "Some will make us more secure against both human and natural threats. And all will improve the quality of life in our nation and the world."

At the request of the National Science Foundation, the academy brought together a committee of experts to sift through suggestions solicited from engineers, scientists, policymakers and the general public. Among the experts were robotics whiz Dean Kamen, futurist/inventor Ray Kurzweil, Google co-founder Larry Page and genomics pioneer J. Craig Venter.

"Tremendous advances in quality of life have come from improved technology in areas such as farming and manufacturing," Page said in an academy statement listing the challenges."If we focus our effort on the important grand challenges of our age, we can hugely improve the future."

The committee was chaired by former Defense Secretary William Perry, who is now an engineering professor at Stanford University. Perry noted that the academy's list of 21st-century challenges follows up on an earlier list of the past century's greatest achievements.

"All of these greatest achievements of the 20th century did have a dark side to them," Perry said. For example, the automobile and the airplane sped up the pace of global transport, but also contributed to global warming. Computers opened the way for today's information society, but also opened the way for viruses and cyber-scams.

"We should not only look at how we seize the opportunities of new technology, but how we meet the challenges that were created by the developments in the 20th century," Perry said.

The challenges fall into four general themes: promoting sustainable technologies, advancing human health, reducing vulnerability to threats and increasing the joy of living. The experts decided against focusing on detailed predictions or gadgetry, but instead identified 14 objectives that would benefit humanity and the planet.

The 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering, announced in Boston at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, are:

  • Making solar energy affordable: How do you convert and store the power of sunshine at a cost competitive with fossil fuels?
  • Providing energy from fusion: How do you sustain a controlled fusion reaction for commercial power generation?
  • Developing carbon sequestration methods: How do you capture the carbon dioxide produced from fossil-fuel burning, and confine that excess carbon underground?
  • Managing the nitrogen cycle: How do you develop countermeasures for fertilizer use, internal combustion and other activities that contribute to pollution?
  • Providing access to clean water: How do you address the short supply of water for personal use and irrigation in many areas of the world?
  • Restoring and improving urban infrastructure: How do you renew aging infrastructure while bringing cities into better ecological balance?
  • Advancing health informatics: How do you identify the specific factors behind wellness and illness, and follow through on the promise of personalized medicine?
  • Engineering better medicines: How do you find new treatments for age-old scourges as well as newly emerging diseases?
  • Reverse-engineering the brain: How do you unlock the secrets of brain function, to heal human diseases and advance the field of artificial intelligence?
  • Preventing nuclear terror: How do you head off threats from agents who are bent upon bringing ruin to industrial society?
  • Securing cyberspace: How do you protect the global information infrastructure from identity theft, viruses and other threats without bogging down the flow of data?
  • Enhancing virtual reality: How do you use computer technology to create imaginative environments for education and entertainment?
  • Advancing personalized learning: How do you move from a "one-size-fits-all" style of education to more engaging, computer-enhanced teaching techniques?
  • Engineering the tools for scientific discovery: How do you improve our methods for exploring the frontiers of life, the atom and the cosmos?

The committee decided not to rank the challenges.  Instead, the academy is asking the public to vote for the most important challenge and provide comments at the project Web site. The site also offers an overview of the project, excerpts from interviews with committee members and other background information.

Kurzweil, who has already predicted that humanity was heading toward an information-driven "singularity" in the year 2045, said he was excited about the challenges.

"Only technology has the scale to address the pressing problems we have," he said.

Kurzweil focused on the promise of solar power, saying that he expected the cost per watt of sun-generated electricity to equal the cost of fossil-fuel energy in five years. In his view, that would set up a "tipping point," potentially leading to an all-solar energy economy in 20 years. Similar advances could be anticipated in neuroscience, genetics and medicine as those fields moved closer to the model set by information technology, he said.

Calestous Juma, a Harvard professor who focuses on international development, said the challenges reflected a "more enlightened understanding" of the role played by technology in an increasingly globalized society. He hoped the project would benefit developing regions as well as the world's more industrialized countries. Some of the challenges target problems that have long bedeviled developing countries, such as water shortages and the scourge of malaria.

Vest told that the academy would use the challenges internally "as organizing principles for our own programs," and he hoped the project would draw the attention of candidates from both parties in this election year.

"In the 21st century, you're not going to be able to lead effectively unless the government at the highest level draws on the power of science and engineering and medicine," he said.

Perry said he supported the idea of holding a presidential debate after the nominating conventions that would focus on scientific and engineering challenges. "The next administration has a lot to do with this, and we will be trying to influence their decisions early," he said.

Vest also hoped the challenges would provide a wider perspective for the next generation of engineers. In the past, engineering has been looked upon as separate from scientific and medical pursuits, but Vest said the next century would be different. "These areas are merging," he told

"Engineering is really a way of improving the human condition," Vest said. "I hope that this will inspire a lot of men and women to participate in meeting these challenges."

In addition to Perry, Jura, Kamen, Kurzweil, Page and Venter, members of the academy's committee included:

  • Alec Broers, chairman of the Science and Technology Select Committee in Britain's House of Lords.
  • Farouk El-Baz, director of Boston University's Center for Remote Sensing.
  • Wesley Harris, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • Bernadine Healy, former director of the National Institutes of Health, and currently health editor and columnist at U.S. News & World Report.
  • W. Daniel Hillis, chairman and co-founder of Applied Minds Inc.  
  • Robert Langer, MIT professor.
  • Jaime Lerner, architect and urban planner.
  • Bindu Lohani, director general and chief compliance officer, Asian Development Bank.
  • Jane Lubchenco, professor of marine biology and zoology at Oregon State University.
  • Mario Molína, biochemist at the University of California at San Diego.
  • Robert Socolow, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the Princeton University Environmental Institute.
  • Jackie Ying, executive director for the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology.

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