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Saturday, 16 February 2008

Engineering challenges of our time

It's been well-publicised in the last day or two, but here are the top 14 challenges facing engineers at the present according to the National Academy of Engineering:

  • Make solar energy affordable

  • Provide energy from fusion

  • Develop carbon sequestration

  • Manage the nitrogen cycle

  • Provide access to clean water

  • Reverse engineer the brain

  • Prevent nuclear terror

  • Secure cyberspace

  • Enhance virtual reality

  • Improve urban infrastructure

  • Advance health informatics

  • Engineer better medicines

  • Advance personalised learning

  • Explore natural frontiers

It really got me thinking, what were the challenges 50 years ago, or a hundred years ago, or a thousand years ago? What will they be in a hundred years? Well, even fifty years ago, almost none of these would be on the list. Of course, explore natural frontiers would still be there along with prevent nuclear war (not so much "terror" back then, people did not understand the meaning of the word terror: they were simply aware of a danger in a dignified and undoubtably British way)

Fifty years ago there were no mobile phones or personal computers, few people used aircraft or owned televisions, especially colour ones. The cassette tape, now worthless, was not yet in mass production. Smallpox still existed and the MMR vaccine had not even been invented. As I write, more and more things come into my head, some technical, some not. The world has changed hugely in the last fifty years; in terms of technology as much as by any other measure. And that's within many people's lifetimes, it's no wonder old people can get a bit bewildered by new-fangled things.

In fifty years' time, the world is likely to change a whole lot more. In my opinion, the main danger is the damage we do to the world as the other 5 billion people catch up with the West in terms of living standards. So for me, the top four are the most important (although transport infrastructure could be included).

I have known for a long time that we cannot tackle environmental issues (esp climate change) without widespread support from the genera public, but it was put to me in an interesting way a few days ago. Technology has increased steadily for the past few thousand years, and at no time during that has it caused us to treat the world better. As an example, commercial flights have got more and more efficient, meaning that less fuel is needed to travel the same distance. This should be a positive environmental effect. In fact, companies designing aircraft engines such as Rolls Royce are using this to promote their business. However, while the changes do increase efficiency, they simply allow flights to become cheaper because aircraft use less fuel. So in fact we fly more often and cause more damage to the environment in this way than we did before. There is little evidence that scientific development can actually save the environment on its own.

Of course, saying that scientific advances do not always help does not mean they cannot. And if they are combined with a general public who are determined to make the world better, then why not (the ozone layer problem is on the way to being fixed, for example)? Surely development of printable organic solar cells or even nuclear fusion can only help the situation. I am aware more than ever though, that engineering and science can give people the option of improving their lives but they have to do it themselves. Looking back at the list: if the problem of water supply is solved, that doesn't stop farmers polluting it with fertiliser; if personalised learning is improved, it gives more choice to people about whether they learn at all or not; and if nuclear terror is alleviated, another problem will arise unless we sort out the social and political reasons for terrorism. Dealing with the great challenges of engineering are nothing without tackling equally difficult challenges in society as a whole.

1 comment:

Grinnyguy said...

Any ideas why the line-spacing changed suddenly part way trough that?