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

What 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.

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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?

5. How can the U.S. optics and photonics community develop optical sources and imaging tools to support an order of magnitude or more of increased resolution in manufacturing?

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Kalil went on to point out how other groups can help develop even more challenges.  For example:

  • Philanthropists and foundations: Philanthropists and foundations could organize some of their giving around Grand Challenges. The Gates Foundation is funding Grand Challenges in Global Health, such as vaccines that do not require refrigeration and a single crop that provides all of the nutrients needed for a healthy diet.
  • Research universities: Some universities such as Duke and USC have joined with the National Academy of Engineering to launch the Grand Challenge Scholars Program. This program enables engineering students to organize their coursework, research, service, international studies, and experiential learning around a Grand Challenge. Universities could extend these programs to interdisciplinary teams of students from all disciplines and emphasize ambitious Grand Challenges in their capital campaigns.
  • More companies could identify a Grand Challenge they can contribute to. IBM has driven advances in computing and AI by beating Kasporov at chess and Ken Jennings at Jeopardy. Google has recruited Sebastian Thrun, the Stanford researcher who won DARPA's Grand Challenge competition for unmanned vehicles, and is making significant investments in self-driving cars.
  • Some venture capitalists are investing in startups that are pursuing Grand Challenges. The Founders Fund, for example, is focused on "smart people solving different science and engineering challenges," such as lowering the cost of space launch costs by a factor of ten; dramatically reducing the time, cost, and uncertainty associated with the drug development process; and machine intelligence that can replicate components of human intelligence. Flagship Ventures is investing in a startup called Essentient, which has stated that its technology could provide enough protein for everyone on the planet in an area the size of Rhode Island.

Kalil offered up his own list as well. It reads:


  • Solar cells compete with coal and natural gas generation before the end of the decade
  • Building energy use is cut in half within a decade
  • Buildings and industries continuously monitor performance, diagnose problems, and summon repair crews before problems become serious
  • Meters provide continuous detailed information about the energy consumption of every device and provide users information only when and where it can be useful
  • Utilities can make as much money saving a kilowatt hour as generating a kilowatt hour
  • The equivalent of Saudi Arabia's oil production is replaced by biomass
  • Nuclear reactors are safe, affordable, and easy to site almost anywhere
  • Electric vehicles travel for 300 miles, and "filling up" with electrons is cheaper than gasoline at $3 a gallon
  • We make 10 high-volume products that are "carbon-negative" - turning carbon dioxide into a valuable raw material as opposed to pollution
  • Business travel miles are cut in half by the use of virtual presence technologies
  • Non-food crop can be used to produce liquid fuels, electricity, animal feed products, and industrial materials anywhere in the country, tailored for each local area
  • We can eliminate radioactive waste from nuclear power generation
  • Deep water wind farms on our coasts and great lakes that compete with coal and natural gas
  • Strong, lightweight materials now used only by NASA and the military cheap enough to use for cars, trucks, and wind machines
  • A $100 e-reader can read a child 10,000 stories in the voice of their favorite celebrity, dramatically reducing the gap in vocabulary size between children from rich and poor household.

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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