Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Grand Challenges

The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) has officially launched what they call a "worldwide brainstorming session" called Grand Challenges for Engineering. The purpose is to identify the major engineering challenges to be addressed during the 21st Century.

The project grew out of a brainstorming session to determine the greatest, highest-impact engineering feats of the 20th Century. Anyone can submit ideas (this means you) to the list, and many people already have. The list will be reviewed by a panel of experts including J. Craig Venter, Larry Page, Dean Kamen, Ray Kurzweil, and William Perry, among others. If you don't know who these people are, you should... go to the website and read their bios.

I haven't submitted my ideas to the list yet, but I will. First, I'm going to list some thoughts here:

  • Mind-Machine Interface - Our knowledge and understanding of the human brain and the human mind have advanced more in the past 15 years than they had in all the time leading up to that time. We now have systems that can detect a person's thought patterns and behave according to a prescribed set of rules, systems that have allowed paralyzed people to operate machinery. Improvements in this technology will result in true cybernetics, replacement limbs, paralysis cures, and eventually devices that help the blind to see and the deaf to hear.
  • Low-Cost Orbital Access - And by "low-cost" I mean around the current price of an airline ticket. Rockets are never going to reach that pricing level, and it's time to stop pretending that they will. There are, however, some means that will work. A space elevator, while massively expensive to design and build, would lower cost-to-orbit dramatically. And gravity control, while firmly in the realm of science fiction for now, would be an enabler of so many things I can't even list them in this post. The hurdles in both cases are mainly engineering challenges (though in the case of gravity control, there is some basic science yet to be done), and they are hurdles that can be overcome.
  • Anti-Senescence - There are a limited number of causes of cell death, and we are close to understanding many of them. The challenges remaining are in both the realms of science and engineering, but they are no insurmountable. Understanding and being able to control cell death could lead to cures for cancer, Alzheimer's disease and many other diseases as well as rejuvenation therapies. Some people believe it may even be possible to eliminate aging as a cause of death.
  • Clean, Reliable Power Generation - Most of our current means of generating electricity are destructive--coal, natural gas, and oil all create pollution in various amounts, and nuclear energy leaves us with large amounts of waste that will take eons to decay. Only renewable, non-polluting sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal will ease our energy demands without irreparable damaging the planet we live on. Solar power satellites beaming power as microwaves to ground receiver stations, supplemented by huge geothermal projects, could supply all of the energy we need to grow in the 21st Century.
  • Asteroid Mining - Earth has a finite number of resources, and they're difficult to get to. A typical asteroid, meanwhile, has trillions of (2007) dollars worth of precious metals, and we could mine them without polluting our water sources here on Earth. The first organization that does so will truly open up the space market by making massive profits and will create a "gold rush" in space.
  • Artificial Intelligence - True artificial intelligence is not that far away (although it's also not as close as some people would like to believe). There will be varying levels of it, ranging from slow-thinking, distributed neural network-based systems to very limited, task-specific (but portable) devices to handle your day-to-day chores, such as driving. Autonomous vehicles would virtually remove the human-error element from automobile and airplane travel, surgery, and commerce. Artificial intelligence will be used (even in the near term) to aid in product design, by means of evolving designs using genetic algorithms, allowing the rapid design of improved products.

These are just some of the (many) ideas I have for engineering challenges to be addressed in the 21st Century. In a way, it makes me sad that I'm not an engineer.

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