A panel of eighteen apparently maverick thinkers was charged with coming up with a to-do list for the twenty-first century by the US National Academy of Engineering (NAE). The maverick panel includes such notables as former director of the National Institutes of Health Bernadine Healy, Google co-founder Larry Page, geneticist and businessman Craig Venter, Nobel Chemistry Laureate Mario Molina, climate change expert Rob Socolow, and ‘futurist’ Ray Kurzweil.
I am sure some of these sci-celebs are mavericks in their own way, but if that’s the case why do some entries on their list of 14 technological challenges for our age read like the section headings from a college student essay or worse still a beauty pageant winner’s wishlist?
- Engineering better medicines
- Advancing health informatics
- Providing access to clean water
- Providing energy from fusion
- Making solar energy economical
- Restoring and improving urban infrastructure
- Enhancing virtual reality
- Reverse engineering the brain
- Exploring natural frontiers
- Advancing personalized learning
- Developing carbon sequestration methods
- Managing the nitrogen cycle
- Securing cyberspace
- Preventing nuclear terror
Okay, don’t get me wrong, world peace and universal wellness are noble aims and avoiding nuclear terror should be a priority. Moreover, even beginning to approach some of these problems will take a maverick or two, and many will probably remain intractable well beyond the twenty-first century. Despite advances in functional MRI, I don’t think we’re that close to reverse engineering the brain, for instance. We are really not going to come close to “managing” the nitrogen cycle any time soon either; we cannot yet make perfectly accurate weather or climate forecasts let alone find ways to control the global flux of atmospheric gases.
Another worrying property of the list is that in some sense a few of the entries are redundant. If we have access to solar power, why would we need fusion power? Even if we get to grips with fusion, building fusion reactor power stations is going to be incredibly expensive and difficult to do at least compared to the solar option. Some people would argue that CO2 is not an issue and others would suggest that the threat of nuclear terrorism is not what the scaremongers would have us believe, so maybe those list entries are also redundant.
Socolow admits in an interview that the challenge of coming up with 14 must-do technological developments was “crazy”. “We came up with broad categories of the challenges that lie ahead and within those categories identified specific initiatives,” he says.
The panel didn’t actually rank the 14 challenges in any particular order. It was obviously a tough call to decide whether advancing health informatics is any more or less important than advancing personalized learning. However, preventing nuclear terror should come well above reverse engineering the brain and perhaps even above engineering better medicines, surely?
Likewise, enhancing virtual reality and exploring natural frontiers will allow humanity to advance way beyond the claustrophobic confines of our current mindset, but if millions of people are without clean water, then we might as well be in the dark ages.
Apparently, the panel released its report in Boston at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), so I suspect it was more than a little tongue in cheek in some respects, especially given some of the personal reports I’ve heard from fellow science journalists about the quality (or lack thereof) of this year’s meeting.