Monday, February 18, 2008

Grand Engineering Challenges

Some of the top brains got together to list the top engineering challenges of the 21st century. Most of the challenges are abstract, a view from 50,000 feet without fleshing out any concrete action plans. Here is what they came up with:
  1. Make solar energy affordable.
  2. Provide energy from fusion.
  3. Develop carbon sequestration methods.
  4. Manage the nitrogen cycle.
  5. Provide access to clean water.
  6. Restore and improve urban infrastructure.
  7. Advance health informatics.
  8. Engineer better medicines.
  9. Reverse-engineer the brain.
  10. Prevent nuclear terror.
  11. Secure cyberspace.
  12. Enhance virtual reality.
  13. Advance personalized learning.
  14. Engineer the tools for scientific discovery.
Number 9 personally resonates because I recently read Phantoms in the Brain, a popular science book that explains how the brain works, and how we think the brain works. V.S.Ramachandran, the author explains that reverse engineering may not be the answer to understand how our body parts work. For example, if one were to understand how a human stomach works just by reverse engineering, one would have to analyze the food consumed and the drops that come out and with these two samples the scientist would construct a blackbox that will transform food into excretion. But the actual digestive process is thoroughly complex and in now way deducible by looking at a blackbox model. And brain, which is extremely superior and probably the most complex organ in this planet cannot be understood by reverse engineering, in my opinion.

Number 14 piques my curiosity. I have some ideas about what the panel may mean when they say 'engineer the tools for scientific discovery'. They aren't talking about scientific inventions, but scientific discoveries which could range from anything between understanding the genetic make up of human species to unearthing fossils or lost civilizations. Scientific discovery in the field of medicine can enable better living standards and in other fields like archeology or paleontology can offer valuable insights about how the earth came to be what it is today and where it may be headed. But this is something only the rich countries can afford to do while the rest are busy either catching up (like India & China) or go down (central African countries).

Number 11 is a no brainer. By the end of the century computers/internet would have radically transformed the way people live. They would have taken new shapes, forms, acquired immense power, would have great reach and will play a vital role in how the economic engine of countries works. Within my lifetime, I'll probably have my preferences set in a repository which will contain data about how hot my bathing water should be, my video rentals, my cuisine choices, etc. When I check into a hotel, they'll have access to these information and will be able to provide personalized services. Now, with this kind of personal data on the internet, security is something that will strongly touch a common man.


Anonymous said...

If you think about it we have been making our life more complex in the name of advancement. So instead we should challenge ourselves on how to simplify it. More complex it gets, more impersonal it becomes. These challenges will soon be revised to solve newer problems posed by those "solutions".

Prasad Venkataramana said...

Hmmm... the golden age that never was.