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The Century's Top Engineering Challenges 290

Posted by samzenpus
from the I-want-talking-fruit dept.
coondoggie writes "The National Science Foundation announced today 14 grand engineering challenges for the 21st century that, if met, would greatly improve how we live. The final choices fall into four themes that are essential for humanity to flourish — sustainability, health, reducing vulnerability, and joy of living. The committee did not attempt to include every important challenge, nor did it endorse particular approaches to meeting those selected. Rather than focusing on predictions or gee-whiz gadgets, the goal was to identify what needs to be done to help people and the planet thrive, the group said. A diverse committee of engineers and scientists — including Larry Page, Robert Langer, and Robert Socolow — came up with the list but did not rank the challenges. Rather, the National Academy of Engineering is offering the public an opportunity to vote on which one they think is most important."
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The Century's Top Engineering Challenges

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  • I'm confused (Score:2, Interesting)

    by MadUndergrad (950779)
    How many months in Iraq does "preventing nuclear terror" cost?
  • by Sylos (1073710) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @12:21AM (#22498556)
    How is that an engineering feat? Seems more like a people feat.
    • by Zeinfeld (263942) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @12:35AM (#22498660) Homepage
      How is that an engineering feat? Seems more like a people feat.

      Ever heard of social engineering?

      Seriously, what is securing cyberspace if not a people problem? The machines don't cause the problems, people do.

      Securing cyberspace is easy, building systems to secure cyberspace that users can actually use is the hard part. People have been telling me to get a Mac as the solution to all my usability problems for years. So today I bought one.

      OK so the Mac is nicer in many respects, but mostly as far as I am concerned on the hardware package side than the software. But the security usability is no better. None of the assistants in the shop were able to solve the simple security tasks I proposed. Which is good for me I suppose since there would be no point in trying to solve an already solved problem.

      Now securing the fifty year old banking IT system, now that is much harder than securing the Internet, and that is the system the criminals are attacking because that is where the money is.

      • social engineering? (Score:3, Interesting)

        by hackingbear (988354)
        The proper name for "social engineering" is "politics". The proper name for "social engineer" is "politician. "Social engineering" is just a marketing name.
    • by sien (35268) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @01:16AM (#22498962) Homepage
      Apparently nuclear war is just dandy. It's nuclear terrorism we have to worry about.


      The declared nuclear states (and Israel with it's undeclared undeclared weapons) and their delivery systems and willingness to invade other non-nuclear states is just fine, it's the people with no weapons and little realistic hope of getting them.


      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by amirulbahr (1216502)
        I take "nuclear terror" to include anyone exploding a nuclear device anywhere with the aim of killing.
      • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 21, 2008 @03:24AM (#22499660)
        actually yes...

        Known nuclear states are not much of a threat as they leave a trail back to them that ensures their own destruction.

        It is the fringe groups that only need a single weapon that you have to worry about... because they WILL use them!

      • more generally... (Score:4, Informative)

        by tinkerton (199273) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @04:48AM (#22499964)
        There is a very strong conviction with some, especially in America, that things are much safer with one big boss, however evil(Hobbes). And it's not wrong.

        Proliferation of any means of provoking large scale mayhem is an increasing problem because of the number of players alone. If every country(or any organisation that's big enough) had an array of such weapons, chances of things going very wrong increase, in part because of things getting out of control in tit-for-tat reactions. Imagine 1962 with 10 players instead of 2.

        There's also a point in distinguishing "terrorists" from "sane people", but here I would agree that the point is overestimated and it places an insane trust in the power of sanity. Uh. Also, terrorists blowing up a big city isn't the end of the world. It's only one city. Humanity will survive :)
      • by tsotha (720379) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @08:36AM (#22500946)

        Declared nuclear states (and states like Israel that are unofficially declared) are just fine. If the Israelis lob a nuke at the Russians, they know they have only twenty minutes or so to make peace with whomever they worship. India and Pakistan, both nuclear armed countries that have, what, seven wars under their collective belt haven't nuked each other. Fear is a wonderful demotivator.

        But terrorism is different. Let's say Al Queda gets ahold of a nuclear bomb. What, exactly, is their downside to actually using it? Who would we retaliate against if they used it to blow up New York? Hell, they might not care if we went on a big bombing spree, since all the dead Muslims are gonna get their virgins.

        And why are you so sanguine about their chances of actually acquiring one? The technology is over sixty years old - you can get plans off the internet. People have been caught selling stolen Russian fissionables now on more than one occasion. And terrorist groups don't seem to have a big problem attracting engineers. Sure, they probably couldn't build a fusion bomb, and a crude fission bomb might be large and have a yield of "only" 50kt or so. That would be enough to kill millions.

        Personally, I don't think nuclear terrorism is an "if" question. It's a "when" question. But short of a verifyable, complete international ban on all nuclear devices, including power stations, I don't see how it can be prevented.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      Like I always say, every problem has an engineering solution [google.com].
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by btgreat (895041)
      When I read it, I was thinking engineering ways of containing nuclear terror - limiting its effects or making ways of preventing nuclear bombs from being detonated (who knows). I think there might be more to it than social engineering.
    • by sumdumass (711423)
      Well, besides social engineering that I already have seen others mention, How about a system that can distinguish nuclear threats and possibly disarm them before or after that.

      Imagine a pack of antinuks on the corner of every street that can dispense some harmless chemical that would negate all effect of radiation in the case of s dirty bomb attack. OR how about more accurate sensors with longer range that can detect nuclear material that is even shielded accurately, automatically listen for radio frequenci
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Sandbags (964742)
      Many of these are not so much engineering feats as they are research feats. Although social engineering certainly is in this category, some of these don't belong on the list.

      Some of these shuold also not be on a 21st centurt list, but a 10 year list. We'll be, for example, making solar power affordable by then with little doubt.

      Here are a few engineering feats I'd like to see:
      - Install a superconducting electrical grid across each major continent
      - BUILD enough solar/wind/etc clean power plants to supply a
  • by stox (131684) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @12:21AM (#22498558) Homepage
    Getting funding for the top 14 engineering challenges.
    • by Zeinfeld (263942) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @12:50AM (#22498774) Homepage
      Getting funding for the top 14 engineering challenges.

      Well that is the point of the exercise here, NSF trying to get money from Congress. But its more of an aspirational list of goals and the real problem is that the feedback system is out of whack.

      You might imagine that either industry or academia would care about stopping Internet Crime, but what Industry actually cares about is making the numbers at the end of the quarter and the best way to do that is to make your bank, business or other crime target a less attractive target than the business next door.

      Academia is meant to do basic research, but the measurement of production is minimum publishable units, publish or perish. And to get a paper published it has to be novel rather than important or useful. So we know how to do secure email in principle but nobody uses it in practice - across the Internet at least. The academics never quite finished the job and the incentives are not quite right for industry to be bothered.

      Often an academic will solve a problem long before it is understood to be a problem. By the time the problem is recognized and the time is right to finish the job and make it useful the field has moved on. Nobody is going to get the credit for pointing out that Fred proposed a solution for a problem twenty years ago.

      Most academic papers in info security are describing solutions to boutique cryptographic puzzles. Real world constraints are irrelevant. So at FC this year there was a paper that started with the idea of stopping counterfeiting of currency by printing barcodes on the notes. Good, interesting. The scheme then involved people scanning them with their cell phone camera. WTF ???? Wrong problem, the challenge the fed is trying to solve is to spot the introduction of fake notes quickly, they can do that with scanners in banks. The banks can be persuaded to install scanners but no consumer is going to spend time scanning their change at the convenience store with a cell phone.

      • by i_b_don (1049110)
        "Well that is the point of the exercise here, NSF trying to get money from Congress. But its more of an aspirational list of goals and the real problem is that the feedback system is out of whack. "

        you know.... the NSF's idea of "securing the internet" scares the shit out of me and is actually the exact opposite of what my definition is for the said task. So frankly, the money that they're trying to get from congress is, IMHO, not forward progress.

        d
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      I agree. The saddest part is that the NSF only secures $20 million for this type of funding, while the Pentagon launches $10 million missiles at satellites tonight.
    • by flyingsquid (813711) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @02:29AM (#22499346)
      Getting funding for the top 14 engineering challenges.

      Well, it wouldn't be such a challenge if, you know, all the goals weren't so incredibly LAME. "Health informatics"? Bo-ring! Here's *my* list of challenges:

      (1) Flying car.

      (2) Cure for the hangover.

      (3) Sex robot. As kinky as Madonna with the flexibility of a contortionist.

      (4) Plug-in memory expansions so you can learn useful skills, equations, etc. without sitting through boring lectures and tests.

      (5) Baldness cure.

      (6) Beer that makes you skinnier instead of fatter.

      (7) Dog-cat hybrid. Like a cat, it doesn't need your attention constantly, but it pays attention when you want it to, like a dog. It's comes when you call it like a dog, but it's clean like a cat. Plus, it barks AND purrs.

      (8) Teleporter. I'm sick of commuting.

      (9) Perpetual youth.

      (10) Ballpoint pen that doesn't run out of ink just when you need it most.

      (11) Formulas that make you grow bigger or smaller, just like Alice in Wonderland.

      (12) Television remote with built in homing device and tiny little robot legs. So even if you misplace it, it always finds its way back to where it should be.

      (13) A version of Microsoft Office that doesn't, you know, suck so much.

      (14) Slashdot editors who are genetically engineered so that they can actually spell and are familiar with basic punctuation and grammar.

      • by wall0159 (881759) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @04:31AM (#22499912)
        Based upon your list, I'd conclude that you're

        1) a nerd
        2) a drunk
        3) virginal
        4) ignorant
        5) bald
        6) overweight
        7) lonely
        8) lazy
        9) middle-aged
        10) a stained-shirt wearer
        11) have an inferiority complex
        12) TV obsessed
        13) a nerd (did I say that already?)
        14) somewhat OCD

        but hey! it's just a list ;-)

        (ps. I'm just taking the piss - please take this in the spirit in which it is intended.)
  • by pha7boy (1242512) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @12:25AM (#22498586)
    that's what I would like to see. DARPA's list. Of course, that's probably classified. as for the NSF's list, "access to clean water" is not so much an egineering challenge as a bureacratic and resource management challenge. Same with preventing nuclear terror. I would much rather add "creating a functioning AI" (though not sure this is engineering), improve baterry techology, and redesign propulsion methods.
    • by NoTheory (580275)
      I think it's an error to divide problem solving into purely technological, or purely social issues. Both serve as factors in the equation. If technology makes the economic barriers to solving a problem so miniscule that governments can be shamed into backing a widespread effort, or private funding can back partial solutions, then then further technological solutions are worth pursuing.

      That said, there is also Social Tech. NSF funds all manners of research and sociological research is important too. So
    • by mkiwi (585287)
      Agreed. "Engineer better tools for scientific discovery" and a few others are quite vague. Also, I would like to note that a lot of these challenges seem to be chemistry/bioinformatics-based. There's really not too much for mechanical, electrical, or structural engineers. I would like to see some things involving robotics outside of computational perception, which is a CS field.

      There's definitely a trend in the list towards materials and chemical engineering applications (which makes sense given the ma

    • by TubeSteak (669689) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @02:40AM (#22499400) Journal

      as for the NSF's list, "access to clean water" is not so much an egineering challenge as a bureacratic and resource management challenge.
      Do you realize what you're asking for by calling the clean water issue a "bureacratic and resource management challenge"? You're asking for fundamental changes in laws & enforcement in poor countries that are rife with government corruption, lax/nonexistent oversight, pollution, contamination of water supplies and tribal divisions.

      Turning the clean water issue into an engineering challenge means you can bypass all that crap & distribute the solution directly to the villagers who need it.

      I caught this on the news the other day. [playpumps.org]
      The idea is to dig a well, strap a playground whirl to a mechanical pump & have kids pump the water up into a big holding tank. It'll only be useful in villages where there's a school or a large number of children to keep the thing spinning, but it's a perfect engineering solution that means villagers don't have to use river water that people & animals have used as a toilet, trough & clothes/dish washer.

      I would much rather add "creating a functioning AI" (though not sure this is engineering), improve baterry techology, and redesign propulsion methods.
      That's amazingly selfish... Access to clean water is & always has been "the century's top engineering challenge" somewhere in the world. The worldwide industrial revolution has made the problem worse in many countries, but there are still many many areas where finding clean water is the same problem it was a thousand years ago.
      • by donscarletti (569232) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @05:37AM (#22500178)

        Do you realize what you're asking for by calling the clean water issue a "bureacratic and resource management challenge"? You're asking for fundamental changes in laws & enforcement in poor countries that are rife with government corruption, lax/nonexistent oversight, pollution, contamination of water supplies and tribal divisions.

        Turning the clean water issue into an engineering challenge means you can bypass all that crap & distribute the solution directly to the villagers who need it.

        If the engineering solution involves something that has any monetary, government corruption will make it infeasible. If it involves anything but extremely small scale and localised cooperation then lax/nonexistent oversight will make it infeasible. If the solution involves taking water in its current state from the environment in any way then pollution and contamination of water supplies will make it infeasible. If it involves anything that is possible to destroy to impoverish its users then tribal divisions will make it infeasible. I guarantee that any possible solution for any engineering problem is either stealable, destroyable, polluteable or can be distroyed by arguing.

        Engineering HAS a solution for this problem, have a clean government to provide strong oversight, manage pollution and contamination and overcome divisions to retain the harmony that lead to this. We can build pipes, wells and treatment plants very effectively, even servicing huge countries like Canada and countries with massive populations like the United States. Development is easy, it's just a natural product of peace and desire to improve the lives of one's people. I have a strong feeling that India's growing middle class will lead the way for that country to become mostly clean and healthy in a few decades time, the Chinese government is somewhat working on fixing the problems with its basic services to poor rural areas and is furiously trying to clean up the worst of the pollution in time for the Olympic games. The poorer nations of South America seem to be creating public services like fresh water, unfortunately sometimes it's a little rocky like in Bolivia but they're getting there. Soon the only nations on earth without these services will be the nations (predominantly African) torn by civil and ethnic strife and that's the problem. That's the only problem since even if the water wasn't killing people, people would be. That's why people problems must be addressed first.

  • I would add: (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Frank Grimes (211860) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @12:28AM (#22498598)
    I would add: An electric battery with an energy density comparable to gasoline.
    • Re:I would add: (Score:5, Informative)

      by rah1420 (234198) <rah1420@gmail.com> on Thursday February 21, 2008 @01:21AM (#22498982)
      Good luck with that. An oil company would buy up the rights and suppress that just like they did with the Ovonic [wikipedia.org] battery.

      See the section in the linked article entitled "Patent Encumbrance" and then go to Cobasys and try and buy a rack of Ovonic NiMH batteries to build your own plug-in electric vehicle. Let me know how that works out for you.

      • I don't see the problem. They are simply selling to a company which orders in large enough quantities to sustain a particular investment in people and plant space.

        IOW - your really reaching.

        What you have seen oil companies doing is snapping up new technologies because its the right thing to do to be in business down the road. Oil companies are big into battery technology because its an open avenue for future profit, provided they can deliver the technology before someone else.

        The real market for them if
    • Re:I would add: (Score:5, Informative)

      by nexuspal (720736) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @01:23AM (#22498992)
      Heh, very close to done, on a previous article here on slashdot, a discovery come through that would do such a thing. In fact, IIRC, lithium ion batteries are already packing more power than high explosives, and close to as much energy as gasoline per unit of mass.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Fractal Dice (696349)

      I would rephrase this as "create a better-than-nature method of using solar power to convert CO2 + H20 into gasoline + O2."

      The way I see it, the only problem with the carbon we burn is that we're taking it out of the ground instead of out of the air. Gasoline is a already a pretty good battery - it just happens to be one that for now we can find lying around in the ground.

    • Re:I would add: (Score:5, Interesting)

      by cgraves (1213828) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @03:25AM (#22499666)

      I would add: An electric battery with an energy density comparable to gasoline.
      The problem is that gasoline combustion gets about 80% by weight of its reactants from the air (O2). Though the energy stored in batteries can be much more efficiently used, they store their oxidizer inside, so even if we could gasoline itself in a battery, it cannot be as dense. Unless it is an air battery, at which point you are looking more and more like a fuel cell.

      But, yes hopefully we can approach "comparable".
    • by polar red (215081)
      Not completely, you need to compare the weight of the complete drivetrain; a petrol-driven engine weighs hundreds of pounds, and an electric motor weighs just a fraction of that, if you're using that for a car. I would say: the smaller the vehicle, the more the advantage is on the side of the electric vehicle. (not to say that you will never be able to power the TGV with a petrol engine ...)
    • Re:I would add: (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Eivind (15695) <eivindorama@gmail.com> on Thursday February 21, 2008 @08:00AM (#22500790) Homepage
      Why comparable ?

      Ever since I learned about antimatter I've been dreaming of a battery powered of a small amount of the stuff. Yeah, I know about the problems with avoiding uhm, "spectacular" failure-modes. But the energy-density is gargantuan.

      Cars that need to swap a tiny battery once-a-year ? Check ! Passenger-jets that emit zero pollution, and that replace tons and tons of jet-fuel with a small, easily swappable battery ? Check !

      Okay, so I know this is totally unrealistic. It would however be very cool.

      e = mc^2

      0.5 gram of antimatter in a battery, reacts with 0.5g of normal matter, releases 0.001 * 300000000 * 300000000 J = gargantuan number. More energy than you could spend in a lifetime. All in a handy AA-cell.

      Building a safe antimatter confinement-cell that size is left an engineering-challenge for the reader.
  • let's see (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Darth_brooks (180756) <clipper377@[ ]il.com ['gma' in gap]> on Thursday February 21, 2008 @12:28AM (#22498604) Homepage
    * Prevent nuclear terror

    how exactly should we do this, hmmm? get rid of all the nuclear weapons on earth, destroy all knowledge relating to the atom, and shoot all nuclear waste into space? Better extinguish the sun while we're at it, and ignore that goal of fusion power since it is "nuclear" fusion. Why not just pick a less ambiguous goal like "end uphappiness."

    * Secure cyberspace

    * Enhance virtual reality


    1996 just filed a lawsuit for trademark infringement.

    * Advance personalized learning

    * Engineer the tools for scientific discovery


    W00t! Buzzword bingo!

    There are some decent goals in there, but like so many projects laid out for engineers, they are engineering projects laid out entirely by non-engineers. There's no thought to implementation here, just feel good "hey we oughta" crap.
    • Re:let's see (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Torvaun (1040898) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @12:49AM (#22498764)
      Preventing nuclear terror is easy, just invent a better and more easily accessible weapon for them to use. Home gene-splicing labs would probably do it.
    • * Prevent nuclear terror

      how exactly should we do this, hmmm? get rid of all the nuclear weapons on earth, destroy all knowledge relating to the atom, and shoot all nuclear waste into space? Better extinguish the sun while we're at it, and ignore that goal of fusion power since it is "nuclear" fusion. Why not just pick a less ambiguous goal like "end uphappiness."

      Actually this one seems pretty unambiguous to me. Prevent terrorists from detonating a nuclear bomb on a city. It's pretty clear what the criteria

  • by Raul654 (453029) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @12:30AM (#22498616) Homepage
    Right now, if we capture carbon dioxide (and we have the technology to do that already pretty efficiently) we have a huge problem of what to do with it. The best technology available today involved injecting it into the ground or under the sea - neither of which are good options. The technology that's being talked about is carbon mineralifcation - the technology to turn CO2 into graphite, or diamond, or soot. That's would be a huge help in fighting global warming.
    • by Titoxd (1116095)
      Turn it into diamond... and then, all of a sudden, engagement rings become a lot cheaper.
      • by Raul654 (453029) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @01:11AM (#22498928) Homepage
        First, diamonds are *not* a rare commodity. That is a myth that the De Beers diamond cartel has spent a century trying to create. De Beers tightly controls the supply, so that they appear to be rare. It's also a self-reinforcing myth - people think diamonds are rare, so they don't sell old family heirlooms, and thus there is no secondary market for diamonds.

        Second, we already have the technology to create diamonds in a lab. See the wikipedia article [wikipedia.org] on the subject. (At this point, I should mention that De Beers also tightly controls the diamond cutter workforce -- any diamond cutter who cuts for a company other than De Beers is immediately cut off from doing any De Beers work)
        • by Titoxd (1116095)
          I do realize that; it was more of a sarcastic remark about the absurd prices of diamonds. Unfortunately, even if there were a larger amount of diamonds due to synthetic manufacture, the price of diamonds wouldn't fall, as there would still be a premium on "natural" stones, even if they are chemically, physically, and gemologically identical (or superior) due to consumer expectations. Demand would still remain high (for the reasons you mentioned above, plus the fact that girls like them...
        • I should mention that De Beers also tightly controls the diamond cutter workforce -- any diamond cutter who cuts for a company other than De Beers is immediately cut off from doing any De Beers work


          I don't know anything about the diamond market, but it would seem to me that precision computer calculated cutting machines would have made this manual labor a thing of the past. Unless of course, having that flawed human touch adds artistic value?
        • by Dr. Cody (554864) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @05:53AM (#22500232)

          (At this point, I should mention that De Beers also tightly controls the diamond cutter workforce -- any diamond cutter who cuts for a company other than De Beers is immediately cut off from doing any De Beers work)
          The diamond cutter workforce is also dominated by Hasidic Jews. When I first saw a documentary on the industry, I thought it was an odd combination, but then, it came to me. Hundreds of years ago, there's this guy, and he's thinking:

          "Hmmmm... I've got all these diamonds; now who can I hire that has experience in precision cutting work where any mistake has grave consequences...

          "I've got it!"

      • by mdsolar (1045926)
        There is a form of diamond that appears easy to manufacture called Lonsdaleite. It is not gem quality but is thought to be just as strong. I calculate here [blogspot.com] that replacing all steel, wood and concrete in construction with this material would sequester at most a few percent a year of our current emissions. The place where carbon has to go is in the soil or the sea. In the soil, terra preta looks like a good bet. In the sea, calcium carbonate seems like the most natural place.
    • by Dahamma (304068) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @02:00AM (#22499216)
      The technology that's being talked about is carbon mineralifcation - the technology to turn CO2 into graphite, or diamond, or soot. That's would be a huge help in fighting global warming.

      Hah. ok, the obvious problem with this is that turning CO2 into coal is the opposite of what we have been doing for the past 200 years. How do you accomplish that? Put the energy back into the coal! But if we could do that, the first thing we'd do is use all of that energy to replace the energy we still obtain by burning coal (and other hydrocarbons) in the first place.

      So, it seems like the only way to do that is to solve the "energy problem" that is putting so much CO2 into our atmosphere already. Once we fix that, then the surplus energy can be used to remove all the CO2 we have already put into the atmosphere...

      I understand that's a total oversimplification, but the point is: cure the disease, not the symptoms!
      • by Raul654 (453029)
        The pre-supposition of carbon mineralification is that converting it into the target form must be do-able with relatively low energy (or even exothermically - that is to say, it generates energy doing it). Wikipedia says [wikipedia.org] that reacting CO2 with magnesium (which is abundantly available) to produce limestone is exothermic.
        • However, extracting Mg metal from its ore is even more strongly endothermic. That energy still needs to come somewhere.
      • by mdsolar (1045926)
        That is not an oversimplification, it is exactly right. But, it does point to the need to plan for renewable energy capacity that can cover this cleanup expense.
    • The technology that's being talked about is carbon mineralifcation - the technology to turn CO2 into graphite, or diamond, or soot. That's would be a huge help in fighting global warming.

      What would be really useful would be a way to take this carbon and sequester it in, oh, I don't know, liquid molecules consisting mostly of carbon and hydrogen. If the energy inputs for this were mostly from renewable sources like geothermal or solar, we could effectively get double-value CO2-wise out of whatever coal we

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by mdsolar (1045926)
      Mineralization is often thought of a taking silicate rock and turing it into silica and calcium or magnesuim carbonate. Often serpentine [wikipedia.org] is cited, though the associated heavy metals make me think this is a poor choice. Wollastonite [wikipedia.org] might be better. If you want to produce elemental carbon, you need to add in energy. The conversion of silicates is exothermic, but removing oxygen from carbon dioxide to make pure carbon requires just as much energy as you got from making the carbon dioxide in the first plac
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by cgraves (1213828)

      Right now, if we capture carbon dioxide (and we have the technology to do that already pretty efficiently) we have a huge problem of what to do with it. The best technology available today involved injecting it into the ground or under the sea - neither of which are good options. The technology that's being talked about is carbon mineralifcation - the technology to turn CO2 into graphite, or diamond, or soot. That's would be a huge help in fighting global warming.

      Carbon mineralifcation is actually called mineral carbonation, and it is not what you say. It is converting silicate minerals into carbonate minerals by reacting their cations with CO2, a process that is constantly happening to rocks everywhere but on geologic timescales. As a stable, permanent carbon storage option, those studying it are looking to accelerate the reaction as an economic, industrial process. See here [www.ipcc.ch] or here [columbia.edu] for information.

      Turning CO2 into graphite, diamond or soot is the opposite i

  • Each item from the list sounds like the core plot device for a sci fi story either already made or that could be made.
  • by zappepcs (820751) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @12:34AM (#22498646) Journal
    What? World peace is not on the list?

    * Make solar energy affordable
    - Just wait till oil goes to 120/barrel

    * Provide energy from fusion
    - isn't that solar energy?

    * Develop carbon sequestration methods
    - I thought the atmosphere of Earth was doing a good job already?

    * Manage the nitrogen cycle
    - Fat chance with corn farmers working over time

    * Provide access to clean water
    - That would just ruin the coke/pepsi wars... not happening

    * Restore and improve urban infrastructure
    - Isn't this program already underway? I understand NYC has had some renovations. (yeah, that's low)

    * Advance health informatics
    - subcutaneous ID chips?

    * Engineer better medicines
    - Yeah, big pharma has been doing good at this one lately - check Chantix

    * Reverse-engineer the brain
    - Ok, this is a new idea, lets get behind this one guys, what do you say?

    * Prevent nuclear terror
    - GW has this one covered, right, he's the decider guy.

    * Secure cyberspace
    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA here's your sign

    * Enhance virtual reality
    - Why not worry about first life a bit more for a while?

    * Advance personalized learning
    - Yes, All those free or lowered tuition costs, online resources, open course materials... those are great ideas, hope someone does that soon.

    * Engineer the tools for scientific discovery
    - This will obviously become reality and really simple once the brain has been reverse engineered??? WTF

    Ok, seriously, is it just me or does everyone else think perhaps not smoke so much weed should be on the list?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 21, 2008 @12:34AM (#22498654)
    * Develop carbon sequestration methods
    No thanks, I'd prefer real alternative energy solutions.

    * Restore and improve urban infrastructure
    Could you be any more vague?

    * Prevent nuclear terror
    I thought these were engineering challenges.

    * Advance personalized learning
    Give me a break.
    • by OakDragon (885217) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @12:55AM (#22498814) Journal

      No thanks, I'd prefer real alternative energy solutions.

      I've often wondered why we don't see alternative energy startups these days. Of course, 10 to 15 years ago (and of course further back), we could assume that any serious capital that was capable of such a startup was already in the hands of people who did not desire such a thing. But these days, we have Warren Buffet, Mike Bloomberg, Bill Gates - these people have some some serious cash, and the "green" philosophy to perhaps make a go of it. Why don't we see a serious attempt at generating wind, solar, or tidal power?

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by eh2o (471262)
      This list is carefully crafted to stay roughly within the scope of what the NSF currently funds. e.g., it omits almost everything having to do with medicine (the domain of the NIH).

      They also tread carefully around current events, cover the asses of various government and corporate interests, and ensure future funding (at least for the next year or so) by including "security" topics that everyone knows are bogus ways of diverting funds (except for the rotton apples at the top of the barrel).

      If we have learn
  • by w3woody (44457) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @12:40AM (#22498688) Homepage
    I'm with Scott Adams: Holes. [typepad.com]

    To summarize, what we need is a better way to dig cheap holes.

    Think of it: with a cheap way to drill a hole we can drill down close to the mantle of the earth for cheap geothermal. With a cheap way to dig a tunnel we can expand our freeway infrastructure by placing new roads below ground. Infrastructure can be run underground more cheaply--if we have a cheap hole to run them through.

    Holes are the future.
    • by edwardpickman (965122) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @01:08AM (#22498896)
      "I'm with Scott Adams: Holes.

      To summarize, what we need is a better way to dig cheap holes.

      Think of it: with a cheap way to drill a hole we can drill down close to the mantle of the earth for cheap geothermal. With a cheap way to dig a tunnel we can expand our freeway infrastructure by placing new roads below ground. Infrastructure can be run underground more cheaply--if we have a cheap hole to run them through.

      Holes are the future."

      I'd like to submit a proposal for genetically engineering gophers the size of a bus. They'd be a cheap source for tunneling and could be bred instead of expensive manufacturing. So long as they don't start digging up lawns or develop a taste for human flesh they could be a major resource and not use any fossil fuels.

    • by zippthorne (748122) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @01:15AM (#22498954) Journal
      It's not drilling the hole that's the problem. It's holding back the walls against hydrostatic pressure, while still having a usefully open space to pipe water down to be turned to steam. The places where we already have geothermal aren't drilling all the way down to the mantel. They're drilling down to a convenient pocket of magma close to the surface. There are many places with magma-resources that are yet to be tapped, but it is by no means practical for any arbitrary point on the earth's surface to simply keep drilling until they reach magma.

      The necessary advance isn't a "hole drilling robot." It's incredibly strong, heat-resistant pipes, and some kind of trick for installing them while drilling without affecting the bore diameter or preventing bit replacement.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by dbIII (701233)
        In which case you need something with a very high compressive strength and capable of handling temperatures of hundreds of degrees celcius - like rock. Geothermal projects are not actually playing with lava or even really huge temperature differences.
  • by qw0ntum (831414) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @12:40AM (#22498690) Journal
    Can someone please explain what it means to "manage the nitrogen cycle?" I've seen that twice in the past two weeks and I'm not entirely sure what they are referring to, and why we need to manage it. Yes, I've tried Google and Wikipedia.
  • pure flaimbait.

    Just look at the response it is getting.
  • by syousef (465911) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @01:03AM (#22498866) Journal
    1. Socks that don't have to be paired every time they're washed.
    2. A device to selectively block out the sound of an episode of "The Golden Girls" my wife insists on putting on to fall asleep to
    3. A device that detects reality tv and automatically adds a warning "This show is for morons. Watching by non-morons may lead to brain damage" across the screen
    4. A filter for slashdot trolls.
    5. A robot capable of doing all your arguing for you in a flame war.
    6. An irrationality meter that warns you how irrational a person you're talking to is being at the time.
    7. A superstition meter
    8. Something to prevent assholes on public transport from touching my personal property (especially people bumping my laptop with oversized baggage and not even realizing it)
    • by jomegat (706411)
      1. Socks that don't have to be paired every time they're washed.

      Amputate one of your feet. Or try this instead:

      1. Go out and buy a 10-20 pairs of socks - all the same kind and color.
      2. Throw away all your old socks.
      3. Now every sock you own matches every other sock you own.
      4. When they need to be replaced, replace them all, because the odds of anyone finding the same type and color sock in a few years are vanishingly small.

      OK, they still have to be paired, but the task becomes a lot easier. And y

      • by syousef (465911)
        Already thought of this. Steps 2 and 4 are the main problem.

        I'm too stingy to throw away perfectly good socks. A year or 2 ago. I did go out and buy a bunch of the same sock but didn't throw away my old ones. It makes the odds of finding a pair much higher. Unfortunately the brand I picked turned out to be not very well made with some socks significantly smaller/shorter than others. So that's fun I'm still living with at the moment.

        Also while I'm no fashion victim wearing the exact same socks every day is a
    • by Propaganda13 (312548) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @01:41AM (#22499116)

      1. Socks that don't have to be paired every time they're washed.
      2. A device to selectively block out the sound of an episode of "The Golden Girls" my wife insists on putting on to fall asleep to
      3. A device that detects reality tv and automatically adds a warning "This show is for morons. Watching by non-morons may lead to brain damage" across the screen
      4. A filter for slashdot trolls.
      5. A robot capable of doing all your arguing for you in a flame war.
      6. An irrationality meter that warns you how irrational a person you're talking to is being at the time.
      7. A superstition meter
      8. Something to prevent assholes on public transport from touching my personal property (especially people bumping my laptop with oversized baggage and not even realizing it)


      1. Buy the same socks
      2. Get a divorce
      3. TV Guide
      4. Done
      5. In a flame war, you don't have to respond to the person or have an intellectual viewpoint. Just write a script for it.
      6. meter is pegged already
      7. no clue
      8. It's called a car
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by syousef (465911)
        1. See my reply to other poster.
        2. No way. She rocks even if our taste in TV differs.
        3. Got one. Doesn't change the wife from wanting to watch stuff. See 2.
        4. Where???
        5. A script that can answer as well as I can? Where?
        6. where?
        8. It's called a traffic jam.
  • How about... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by JimboFBX (1097277)
    Fixing our gas wasting traffic system.
  • by RobBebop (947356) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @01:19AM (#22498968) Homepage Journal
    1. Make solar energy affordable - Done [nanosolar.com]
    2. Provide energy from fusion - This is something I don't know anything about.
    3. Develop carbon sequestration methods - More information [energy.gov]
    4. Manage the nitrogen cycle - More information [wikipedia.org]. I feel like on a basic, local level this can already be accomplished easily. On an advanced/global level though... Manage it? In the next 100 years maybe we can gather some data points so we can UNDERSTAND it. Until then, any attempts to "manage" it would be foolish
    5. Provide access to clean water - Tried and true method [wikipedia.org] and 1 [wateraid.org], 2 [wwwf.org], 3 [water.org] Orgs doing it.
    6. Restore and improve urban infrastructure - And [mta.info] run [transitchicago.com] on [mbta.com]-time [metro.net] and build more parks - but who will fund it?
    7. Advance health informatics - This "engineering goal" is too general to discuss. It's like, make it easier to get useful data on our health. Duh!
    8. Engineer better medicines - I think "Engineer better robots" would be a more worthwhile engineering goal... but that's just me.
    9. Reverse-engineer the brain - Teaching it [mit.edu], and studying it [mit.edu]
    10. Prevent nuclear terror - This is a political bombshell that I won't go near, but from what I see the strategy is (a) deterrence, and (b) threaten anybody with a nuclear project.
    11. Secure cyberspace - Ha!
    12. Enhance virtual reality - In a practical way or just enough so that my brain can be tricked into thinking that an incredibly hot women is going down on me?
    13. Advance personalized learning - Not sure what this is...
    14. Engineer the tools for scientific discovery - Another overly general one, but I'd like to think "discovery" is a misspelling of "exploration". Lately I've been thinking that our satellites are similar to the Triremes [wikipedia.org] of Greece times (which are bound to stay close to our shores), the Apollo/Space Shuttle is like Viking ships [wikipedia.org] (which couldn't (or weren't) be used to setup a new settlement), and then this [wikipedia.org] would be the equivalent of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria (except they will be called Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and Lincoln).

    I am going to be fair... this is really a list of things that can be completed in the next 25 years. These are not "100 year" goals. They are simply to generalized, for the most part. A real engineer knows that goals should be Specific, Measurable, and ARTistic [wikipedia.org]. These goals don't qualify.

  • If we could get a space elevator working and in production for commercial use, this would be a BIG accomplishment for everyone. This would lower the barrier of access to space to commercial ventures, rather than just only accessible to only the richest of countries.
  • At that point the entire article lost me due to the ineptness of the author...
  • The first three... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by evanbd (210358) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @01:30AM (#22499044)
    Aren't they just wordier versions of "make clean, cheap energy"?
  • Regarding the engineering challenge: "Provide energy from fusion"

    The Sun and other stars have been doing this for billion of years. On earth, H-Bombs did this decades ago. Heck, I've accelerated Deuterium ions into a target containing Tritium in a lab and calculated the energy that was released in the resulting fusion reaction.

    I think they way to say something along the lines of: Produce power from commercially viable fusion reactors.
    • We can't do fusion in a reliable, safe, controllable, or useful manner. That's why it's an engineering challenge not a scientific one. The commercial challenge will come after the engineering challenge is solved.

      I think the biggest missing option from the list is accessibility: making all benefits from these whizzy scientific and technical ideas available and accessible to everybody around the world.

  • Every single one of these engineering challenges would benefit by any significant gains made towards the efficient calculation of "intractible problems". So really, while one could argue that yes, we should spend billions of dollars on brute force research on all of these, one could also argue that we should also be trying to cultivate that one Newton of our day that can solve TSP in polynomial time. Then you could just have a computer crunch out solutions to all of the problems on the list, even by using
  • False problems (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Ralph Spoilsport (673134) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @01:59AM (#22499204) Journal
    Many of those issues are not really problems, in that they can be cured by other issues that make them redundant/meaningless.

    * Make solar energy affordable

    As noted elsewhere: affordable is relative. Let oil hit some arbitrarily high price, and solar power suddenly looks cheap.

    * Provide energy from fusion

    Also, as noted elsewhere, the sun is a stable fusion reactor, and it is safely located millions of miles away.

    * Develop carbon sequestration methods

    Only if we intend to continue gulping oil. Assuming it goes off the charts in expense, carbon sources (oil or coal) will cease to be economically viable and will cease being used except for Important things like medicine and materials, both of which are small carbon burners compared to the local SUV.

    * Manage the nitrogen cycle

    Corn, Beans, Squash.

    * Provide access to clean water

    Nice idea, but first you have to have enough to go around. This problem (as would many others) be solved with FEWER people shitting the place up.

    * Restore and improve urban infrastructure

    Mostly, TRAINS. Lots of electric TRAINS. Remember: Peak OIl == Peak Asphalt.

    * Advance health informatics

    Nice idea - how you will do it with out petroleum is another issue.

    * Engineer better medicines

    See above.

    * Reverse-engineer the brain

    Why? I would think reverse engineering the liver might be more useful.

    * Prevent nuclear terror

    Sure: Ban nuclear weapons or drive civilisation back to the 18th century. We can do the first, and the oil crash will do the second, over time.

    * Secure cyberspace

    Against WHAT? Phishing?

    * Enhance virtual reality

    Eeew- that is like SO five minutes ago.

    * Advance personalized learning

    Sure, so I can leverage my human resources, right? fuck off.

    * Engineer the tools for scientific discovery

    Like WHAT - INSIGHT? Good luck with that Butch, lemme know how it works out for ya. Moron.

    RS

  • Sure, nuclear terror is plenty frightening and cheap solar power would be great.

    But what about the zombies?

    Developing an effective plan to stave off a massive zombie invasion is the transcendent challenge of our time. We need to do this sooner rather than later, and we need to be prepared when it happens. Cyberspace, virtual reality, fusion power, even clean water - all of this will be for naught if we're all undead.

    You're probably thinking by now (if you're still reading, that is), "Simple. Shoot them in t
  • by Spazmania (174582) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @03:16AM (#22499626) Homepage
    * Develop carbon sequestration methods

    We already have high-quality carbon sequestration methods. They're called "trees." All we have to do is plant more than we cut down.

    * Manage the nitrogen cycle
    * Enhance virtual reality
    * Engineer the tools for scientific discovery

    Weak. Weak!

    * Make solar energy affordable
    * Provide energy from fusion
    * Engineer better medicines
    * Reverse-engineer the brain

    These are not engineering tasks; they're basic science tasks. Engineers will get nowhere with these; it'd be a waste of money.

    * Prevent nuclear terror
    * Restore and improve urban infrastructure
    * Provide access to clean water

    These are not engineering tasks; they are political tasks. Solve the political factors and the engineering tasks are long solved and well-understood.

    * Advance health informatics
    * Secure cyberspace
    * Advance personalized learning

    These at least fall within the domain of solvable engineering problems.
    • by Phat_Tony (661117)
      I agree with your breakdown of tasks, particularly their mixing up political, science, engineering, and just plain wishy-washy stuff. The line between science and engineering is vague, but they definitely tromp right over it and keep on going. When you achieve your scientific breakthrough and really understand the mechanisms, then you say "and the rest is just engineering." Engineering is stuff you can do with a bunch of bright, trained people following the established methods of the fields of engineering.
  • They missed the single critical factor -- "Design and construct a molecular nanoassembler." If one has one, then shortly thereafter one can have many. Then one can have nanorobots, then one can have indefinite longevity (limited by ones selected hazard function) and nanofactories (aka Star Trek type 'replicators'). The problem is that people don't recognize the design and assembly of something with 4 to 8 million atoms is a problem that can be solved (each /. reader could be responsible for a couple of d

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