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What are grand technology and scientific challenges for the 21st century?

DARPA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy want public input on The Next Big Things

By Layer 8 on Wed, 10/10/12 - 1:25pm.

nasaWhat are the next Big Things in science and technology? Teleportation? Unlimited clean Energy? The scientists and researchers at DARPA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy put out a public call this week for ideas that could form what they call the Grand Challenges - ambitious yet achievable goals that that would herald serious breakthroughs in science and technology.

BACKGROUND: What are the 14 greatest engineering challenges for the 21st century?

In defining what the government groups are looking for, Thomas Kalil, Deputy Director for Policy for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy said that while there might not be universally accepted definition of what constitutes a Grand Challenge, they typically do have certain attributes including:  

  • They can have a major impact in domains such as health, energy, sustainability, education, economic opportunity, national security, or human exploration.
  • They are ambitious but achievable. Proposing to end scarcity in five years is certainly ambitious, but it is not achievable. As Arthur Sulzberger put it, "I believe in an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out."
  • Grand Challenges are compelling and intrinsically motivating. They should capture the public's imagination. Many people should be willing to devote a good chunk of their career to the pursuit of one of these goals.
  • Grand Challenges have a "Goldilocks" level of specificity and focus. "Improving the human condition" is not a Grand Challenge because it does not provide enough guidance for what to do next. One of the virtues of a goal like "landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth" is that it is clear whether it has been achieved. Grand Challenges should have measurable targets for success and timing of completion. On the other hand, a Grand Challenge that is too narrowly defined may assume a particular technical solution and reduce the opportunity for new approaches.
  • Grand Challenges can help drive and harness innovation and advances in science and technology. I certainly do not want to argue that technology is going to solve all of our problems. But it can be a powerful tool, particularly when combined with social, financial, policy, institutional and business model innovations.

The idea of developing a list of Grand Challenges is growing almost commonplace these days as many groups try to emulate the success of government entities such as NASA, DARPA and private firms like X Prize Foundation have had in setting up successful challenges in the past.

In fact, X Prize last year it declared a top eight list of key challenges that could end up being public competitions in the coming months or years.  The eight concepts or challenges included:

1. Water ("Super 'Brita' Water Prize") - Develop a technology to solve the world's number one cause of death: Lack of safe drinking water.

2. Personal Health Monitoring System ("OnStar for the Body Prize") - Develop and demonstrate a system which continuously monitors an individual's personal health-related data leading to early detection of disease or illness.

3. Energy & Water from Waste - Create and demonstrate a technology that generates off-grid water and energy for a small village derived from human and organic waste.

4. Around the World Ocean Survey - Create an autonomous underwater vehicle that can circumnavigate the world's oceans, gathering data each step of the way.

5. Transforming Parentless Youth - Dramatically and positively change the outcome for significantly at risk foster children, reducing the number of incarcerations and unemployment rate by fifty-percent or more.

6. Brain-Computer Interface ("Mind over Matter") - Enable high function, minimally invasive brain to computer interfaces that can turn thought into action.

7. Wireless Power Transmission - Wireless transmission of electricity over distances greater than 200 miles while losing less than two percent of the electricity during the transmission.

8. Ultra-Fast Point-To-Point Travel - Design and fly the world's fastest point-to-point passenger travel system.

A report from the National Research Council earlier this year defined research priorities and challenges that would fill gaps in optics and photonics, technologies that have the potential to advance the economy of the United States and provide visionary directions for future technology applications.

From the National Research Council report, the five challenges are:

1. How can the U.S. optics and photonics community invent technologies for the next factor of-100 cost-effective capacity increases in optical networks?

2. How can the U.S. optics and photonics community develop a seamless integration of photonics and electronics components as a mainstream platform for low-cost fabrication and packaging of systems on a chip for communications, sensing, medical, energy, and defense applications?

3. How can the U.S. military develop the required optical technologies to support platforms capable of wide-area surveillance, object identification and improved image resolution, high-bandwidth free-space communication, laser strike, and defense against missiles?

4. How can U.S. energy stakeholders achieve cost parity across the nation's electric grid for solar power versus new fossil-fuel-powered electric plants by the year 2020?