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Friday, February 29, 2008

Engineering the Future

In his book, “The World is Flat”, author Thomas L. Friedman analyses the progress of globalisation with an emphasis on the early 21st century. In doing so he clearly demonstrates how significant the development of the personal computer was in facilitating personal content generaton - if only initially in the areas of word processing, spreadsheets and databases. This led to huge productivity increases in the workplace as job functions that were previously in the domain of experts suddenly became open to the wider population. This was followed by the development of the local area network which allowed for collaboration within the office space, again increasing productivity and ensuring better workflows. The birth of the internet and broadband in turn has led to mass global collaboration and outsourcing, allowing for workflows to be distributed cost effectively to lower wage developing countries through the interconnection of personal computers. Now we are heading into the “cloud computing” stage where the sharing of information, collaboration and the ability to generate and publish content has gone mobile, courtesy of a range of broadband-enabled devices. In other words, humanity has never been connected so closely before on a global scale nor has the flow of information been so wide.

The knock-on effect of these developments in global communications has meant unprecedented collaborations between different disciplines which were once isolated.This in turn is leading to a rapid and exponential increase in innovation and progress across all fields of science, and technology, as well as in the humanities. But in order to maintain innovation, we must constantly set ourselves goals and you could hardly find a more challenging set of goals then those set down by a recently convened committee of scientsists, entrepeneurs and thinkers which was established by the National Academy of Engineering in the United States.

The committee, which included such luminaries as the maverick biolgist Craig Venter, Futurologist and inventor Raymond Kurzweil and Google-founder Larry Page, was tasked with identifying the Greatest Engineering Challenges for the 21st Century.


Raymond Kurzweil, Futurologist.

All agreed, in keeping with Friedman’s thesis, that the pace of advances in technology means the rate of progress will be 30 times faster in the next half century, opening up the prospect of further breathtaking innovation in many fields, such as personalized medicines, the reversal of the effects of ageing and clean energy.
Above all, the provision of clean energy was seen as a core priority. The committee identified sunshine as a "tantalizing source of environmentally friendly power, bathing the Earth with more energy each hour than the planet's population consumes in a year". But capturing that power, converting it into something useful and storing it poses a challenge.


Clean energy

"We only need to capture one part in 10,000 of the sunlight that falls on the Earth to meet 100% of our energy needs," according to futurologist Ray Kurzweil. "This will become feasible with nanoengineered solar panels and nanoengineered fuel cells."

Kurzweil, a renowned inventor responsible for the first CCD flat-bed scanner, the first text-to-speech synthesizer and the first music synthesizer capable of recreating the sounds of a grand piano and other orchestral instrument, also raised the spectre of “Technological singularity” – the inextricable outcome of artificial intelligence. "Once non-biological intelligence matches the range and subtlety of human intelligence, it will necessarily soar past it because of the continuing acceleration of information-based technologies, as well as the ability of machines to instantly share their knowledge." He added: "Intelligent nanorobots will be deeply integrated in the environment, our bodies and our brains, providing vastly extended longevity, full-immersion virtual reality incorporating all of the senses ... and enhanced human intelligence."

The experts presented their list of challenges to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston and also made them available on their website at http://www.engineeringchallenges.org.

Here is an overview of their challenges they’ve set:

Make solar energy affordable 
Sunlight is a free energy source, but the ability to capture it is limited and expensive at present

Provide energy from nuclear fusion 
Could supply a near limitless supply of energy using seawater as fuel

Prevent nuclear terror 
Engineers must find ways to secure energy sources that might attract the attention of terrorist groups

Engineer better medicines 
Personalised medicine would combine genetic information with clinical data to tailor drugs and doses to meet the needs of an individual patient

Provide access to clean water 
About one in six people do not have adequate access to water

Manage the nitrogen cycle 
Humans have doubled rate at which nitrogen is removed from the air relative to pre-industrial times, contributing to smog and acid rain, polluting drinking water, and worsening global warming

Develop carbon sequestration 
Capturing carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels and storing it could help tackle global warming

Enhance virtual reality 
From psychiatry and education to entertainment, virtual reality is seen as a powerful tool for training experts and treating patients

Restore/improve urban infrastructure 
Engineers need to find ways of keeping cities and services running and beautiful while preserving the environment

Secure cyberspace 
Identity theft and computer viruses will disrupt an increasingly connected world. Security technology to tackle the problem must be designed with people in mind to ensure it is not too cumbersome to use

Advance health informatics 
To deliver more personalised medicines, doctors and health professionals need new ways to carefully track patients' biological information

Reverse-engineer the brain 
Determining how the brain works could help with treatment of diseases while providing clues for designing artificial intelligence

Advance personalised learning 
This could use internet courses or virtual reality to tailor education to a person's abilities

posted by Neil Leyden @ 3:54 p.m.

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