"Pay my troops no mind; they're just on a fact-finding mission."

The Big Science and Technology Problems of the 21st Century

The big problems are mostly the same as in the 20th century and most of them stretch back much farther than that.

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

#1 is probably done. Though it’s possible to create solutions at different scales of production.

#2 is going to be interesting as hackers will add functions to their sensors, and malicious ones will disrupt other peoples sensors for fun and profit.

I’ve heard of many implentations of #3, so it’s going to come down to what is most economical.

#4 is probably done, though a more robust version that can go deeper will be required to really satisfy the spirit of the goal.

#5 is quite difficult considering everything in our economy is forcing more people to be unemployed in the traditional sense. This is a judo problem, you can’t fix it within the normal means.

On #6, I’ve seen some simple EEG style sensors that can be integrated into games, but for the most part Brain-Machine interfaces are Sci-Fi. It’s easier to run prosthetics off of nerve impulses coming through limbs rather by sensing brainwaves without implants. So it’s going to take awhile to crack that problem. 3d interfaces are hitting the market now, both in VR headsets and 3d intractable  xbox kinect sensors:

The skeleton drawing system the kinect sensors use is software-based and can be modified, but other companies have already launched “improved” sensors that can be used on their own for 3d interaction.

#7 is interesting and we’ll have to see what is the most economical way of tackling it.

#8 needs to factor in safety, otherwise it won’t be widely used.

Some of the NRC’s problems are less thrilling, the benefits aren’t as clear to the man on the street, and it sort of reads like a list of “stuff we were going to do anyway, but we made a report for it”:

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?

More interestingly, there is no way these questions can cover the whole of desires and needs that technology must fill for the 21st century. What are they missing?

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