Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Engineering the 21st Century

An international group of leading technological thinkers, including IBN Executive Director Prof. Jackie Y. Ying, have identified 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st Century that would significantly improve the quality of life if they are met.

The 18-member blue-ribbon committee was appointed by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) at the request of the US National Science Foundation in 2006 and sought input from people around the world for their report. Its findings were revealed by the NAE at the 2008 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston on February 15, 2008.

According to the Committee Chair and former US Secretary of Defense, Prof. William J. Perry, the committee selected engineering challenges that need to be met and could be realized in the next century. The committee focused on identifying 'what needs to be done to help people and the planet thrive'. These challenges have been classified into four themes to address issues related to sustainability, health, vulnerability and joy of living.

The grand challenges identified by the committee are:

  • Make solar energy economical
  • Provide energy from fusion
  • Develop carbon sequestration methods
  • Manage the nitrogen cycle
  • Provide access to clean water
  • Restore and improve urban infrastructure
  • Advance health informatics
  • Engineer better medicines
  • Reverse-engineer the brain
  • Prevent nuclear terror
  • Secure cyberspace
  • Enhance virtual reality
  • Advance personalized learning
  • Engineer the tools of scientific discovery

"These grand challenges represent multifaceted problems that would critically impact our future, and would require attention from different walks of our society and joint efforts between nations. For example, global warming poses a direct threat on the sustainability of our civilization. Therefore, the control of green house gas release, along with the development of carbon sequestration methods and alternative energy sources/utilization require our immediate attention. These challenges can only be tackled through greater cooperation between various groups, including engineers, scientists, policy makers and industrial leaders," said Prof. Jackie Ying.

"In the area of health, personalized medicine presents exciting opportunities for tailored treatments of an individual's illness, but it can only be accomplished if scientists, engineers and medical doctors all work together. Here, engineers can contribute by making processes such as drug screening and synthesis much more efficient so that personalized medicine can be realized at an affordable price. It is also important that bioengineers work on regenerative medicine with novel cell and tissue engineering approaches to develop alternative, more biomimicking means of recovery from diseases."

"Many of the challenges also have broad impacts in different fields. For example, technological advances in virtual reality would dramatically transform communications and media, and also allow us to drastically cut down energy utilization associated with physical transportation. Breakthroughs in reverse engineering the brain would enable us to harness the full potential of the human brain, revolutionizing the way we learn, think, work and experience life; it would also lead to breakthroughs in the way we develop artificial intelligence to relieve us from hazardous, tedious and technically challenging tasks. Along with personalized learning, reverse engineering the brain may pave the way for creating new methods of educating our younger generation in a much more fun and effective manner. These new challenges represent areas of research that may profoundly impact our joy of living, helping us become more productive and achieve a healthier work-life balance."

"Other key challenges facing engineers involve developing novel technologies that not only would improve the quality of life in the developed countries, but also can be made easily available to the entire world. For example, miniaturized and portable devices that can purify water, generate energy, facilitate education, and enable communications may allow us to move away from the need of mega infrastructural developments towards compact, distributed systems that can be more easily acquired and more effectively managed/upgraded. Nanotechnology holds the key to such disruptive technology. It can make a tremendous impact especially to the people living in the rural parts of the world and in the developing countries, and hopefully reduce the disparity between the "haves" and have-nots," commented Prof. Ying.

The NAE Grand Challenges for Engineering Committee comprises of:

  • William Perry, Committee Chair, (Former Secretary of Defense, U.S. Department of Defense) Michael and Barbara Berberian Professor and Professor of Engineering, Stanford University
  • Alec Broers, Chairman, Science and Technology Select Committee, United Kingdom House of Lords
  • Farouk El-Baz, Research Professor and Director, Center for Remote Sensing, Boston University
  • Wesley Harris, Department Head and Charles Stark Draper Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Bernadine Healy, Health Editor and Columnist, U.S. News & World Report
  • W. Daniel Hillis, Chairman and Co-Founder, Applied Minds, Inc.
  • Calestous Juma, Professor of the Practice of International Development, Harvard University
  • Dean Kamen, Founder and President, DEKA Research and Development Corp.
  • Raymond Kurzweil, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Kurzweil Technologies, Inc.
  • Robert Langer, Institute Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Jaime Lerner, Architect and Urban Planner, Instituto Jaime Lerner
  • Bindu Lohani, Director General and Chief Compliance Officer, Asian Development Bank
  • Jane Lubchenco, Wayne and Gladys Valley Professor of Marine Biology and Distinguished Professor of Zoology, Oregon State University
  • Mario MolĂ­na, Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of California
  • Larry Page, Co-Founder and President of Products, Google, Inc.
  • Robert Socolow, Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Princeton University Environmental Institute
  • J. Craig Venter, President, The J. Craig Venter Institute
  • Jackie Y. Ying, Executive Director, Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology
View the full report at www.engineeringchallenges.org.


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