What are our problems of the 21st century

The Future of Humanity »Challenges of the 21st Century | Workshop note LXVII

If you ask a hundred people about their wishes, dreams, and visions for the coming decades, you will probably get highly disparate answers. If we have something more specific like "Germany should become European soccer champions"or"No more folk music on TV"Delete once, so I suspect that once again world peace would have top priority. This will probably be followed by climate protection and then medical hopes, above all the fight against cancer.

But what if you let scientists, engineers and futurologists work on a list that concretizes the most important challenges of the still young century? The "National Academy of Engineering" of the USA has commissioned a committee of experts to name the central tasks. The list that came out was presented last week. It is extremely interesting and worth discussing.

Which human problems are most pressing? Which priorities should science and politics set? Which innovations promise the most benefits?

The 18-member body, chaired by former Defense Secretary William Perry, brings together a number of illustrious names. Renowned biologists, marine researchers and nanotechnologists will be there, the most prominent names are likely to be futurologist Ray Kurzweil, Nobel laureate in chemistry Mario Molina, gene guru Craig Venter and Larry Page from Google.

Robert Mühlbauer writes about the procedure in telepolis:

The panel has met several times since 2006 to develop and discuss the list. For a year, other scientists were also able to participate via a website. Then they created the report "Grand Challenges for Engineering" in which they list the 14 challenges that they believe have the greatest potential for improving human living conditions in the 21st century.

I recently set up a compilation of future forecasts and now I have to smile because some fields are congruent or at least have a certain relationship. What are the individual challenges that have been identified? I took the liberty of adding a few personal comments in each case ...



The 14 most important challenges for the 21st century

+1. Optimization of solar energy

Increasing efficiency and thus economic profitability are on the agenda here.
The authors write:

"As a source of energy, nothing matches the sun."

No contradiction on my part. At the same time, of course, the technologies that ensure that the energy is stored must also be optimized.

+2. Breakthrough in nuclear fusion

This decades-old dream of physicists will therefore be pursued. Sure, billions are not invested in the ITER research reactor for nothing. The idea is impressive: to use fusion energy instead of waste heat from nuclear fission. Let's do it after the sun. ;-) Well, it will take decades ...

+3. Development of methods for storing CO2

As long as we burn fossil fuels, we have the problem of carbon dioxide. Saving energy would also be a variant to cushion the problem, but there is hardly any way around the storage or sequestration of CO2. I am overwhelmed by whether this can be achieved in a realistic timeframe.

+4. Control of the nitrogen cycle

Also a problem that is exacerbated by the growing world population and the increasing need for food. How do we make the use of nitrogen more efficient and sustainable? Certainly important, but just as tricky.

+5. Ensure access to clean water

A task that is similarly ambitious. Because we already have massive problems in some mega-cities and in some emerging countries in supplying the population with reasonably clean drinking water. According to Stefan Jacobasch from Scienceblogs, this is the most urgent task.

+6. Improvement of urban infrastructures

Is related to the above-mentioned problem area, but goes further to the traffic problem and safety aspects. We will need smarter and more powerful transport technologies. And "gated communities" (keyword: crime) are no solution in the long run. So here urban planning and (social) politics are needed.

+7. Advances in health informatics

I am honestly a bit surprised at this point, because initially it actually means the mere more efficient management and use of patient data, etc. In addition, the experts imagine something like a "tele" doctor, i.e. the consultation of specialists over a distance. Somewhere in the back of the information on this point there is also something to improve the control of the disease. In that respect I am reconciled again ...

+8. Medical progress, better drugs

Sure, no contradiction. It would be nice if drugs for diseases of civilization in the industrialized hemisphere were not only thought of. And of course the authors (Venter & Co.) envision tailor-made therapies based on genetic knowledge. Here there is again a proximity to "7".

+9. Coupling of brain research and AI technologies

On the one hand, the efforts of the neurosciences are to be accelerated (from the medical aspects to "enhancement"), on the other hand, the authors hope for advances in the direction of "thinking" machines. Pure science fiction, right?

+10. Nuclear Security and Counter-Terrorism

A task in which engineers only play a minor role, right? Politicians are particularly required here. The proliferation of nuclear weapons, the uncontrolled trade in nuclear weapons-grade material is definitely a problem.

+11. Securing cyberspace

Also a task that I would not necessarily have placed that high on the agenda so far. But I admit that if the worldwide data flows are cut off, if the infrastructure of our digital culture is attacked and damaged, then it means a collapse of our (technological) societies. On the other hand, precautions would be desirable.

+12. Optimization of the virtual reality applications

Who doesn't think of the matrix here? Well, the authors haven't gone that far yet, but interaction with virtual actors is on their agenda. I don't think it's urgent. For what purposes? The entertainment factor outweighs me too much here.

+13. Advances in Personalized Learning

OK, agreed. "Lifelong learning" would be a related catchphrase. Whereby I generally consider access to knowledge (keyword: Open Access) to be just as important and, above all, to ensure that children in emerging and developing countries can actually go to school ...

+14. Develop better tools for scientific discovery

That sounds pretty vague. It becomes a little more concrete in the accompanying text: Above all, the biological sciences should be more closely linked with engineering know-how and the exploration of space should be promoted. So further expeditions to Mars will follow ... But that is my fundamental question: Can scientific progress really be planned, controlled or even enforced by suitable technologies?


So that's the list. There are sure to be many relevant points. Of course, you can clearly see the "US bias". If similarly renowned experts from Scandinavian or third world countries had been called together, the list would probably look different.

Which problem areas have been forgotten or is that okay? Are the priorities set correctly? Does anyone have other wishes and favorites? 1

By the way, you can state your own preference on the website ...



On the question of future visions and technological innovations:



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  1. If necessary, I will try to forward the "change requests" to the gentlemen. ;-) [↩]