Norm Augustine on the Nature of Challenges

PostedJanuary 30, 2007

Norm Augustine on the Nature of Challenges

Nearly all the grand challenges potentially to be faced by society as a whole in the next century have significant engineering connotations, either as part of their solution or, unfortunately, as part of their cause.  That is, the Law of Unintended Consequences is alive and well.

There will, of course, be the "routine" matters, such as developing machines that better people's lives and can communicate with humans on human terms (i.e., plain language and voice); exploring Mars; establishing scheduled space tourism; solving the [living and transportation] congestion problems already confronting much of the world; and balancing the benefits of new technological accomplishments with the invasions of individual privacy that many new developments will undoubtedly generate (micro-video recorders, human implantable micro-storage devices, engineered plants and animals, etc.)  In fact, some of engineering's greatest challenges may well prove to reside in the field of ethics. 

There will also be the truly large challenges (my use of "large" as opposed to "grand" is, in this context, not by accident) which will likely include helping humanity recover from the destruction of several major cities by nuclear weapons at least initially employed by terrorists, and from intentionally or naturally caused pandemics in which tens of millions of people die.

The next century will, of course, see the continuation of the unfinished task of providing technologies that help society satisfy the most basic of human needs.  These would include, for example, providing an adequate food supply to support the earth's burgeoning population; providing an adequate supply of clean water for all citizens of the planet (probably entailing the use of sea water); controlling and responding to major environmental shifts and weather extremes (such as would be caused by the melting of the polar ice caps) and providing a secure source of clean, affordable energy as the earth's petroleum supply wanes.  Closely related is the immense challenge of assuring a life-friendly natural environment in the face of both human and naturally-caused change. 

There of course remain major diseases to conquer... but more challenging is likely to be the task of enabling quality lives for individuals who routinely survive to ages far beyond those to which we have become accustomed.  There is also that challenge that in part makes humans human; that is, expanding our knowledge of nature's great secrets (for example, helping scientists understand dark matter and dark energy).

Among the most immediate needs is to confront the challenge brought to us by science and engineering in the last century whereby individuals and small groups of people can, for the first time in history, produce major adverse impacts on the lives of very large groups of people; i.e., through acts of high-tech terrorism.  This new asymmetry will need to be corrected and reasonable deterrents found to armed conflict at all levels (with such deterrents going well beyond classical military means, and include reducing the gap in quality of life between "haves" and "have-nots" -- by raising the living standard of all). 

With respect to the engineering profession itself, perhaps its greatest challenge will be to tear down the barriers that have evolved between its various disciplines.  It is likely that many of the great advances in the future will be "cross-cutting", for example, involving materials, electronics, biology and more.

And then there are, of course, the really grand challenges that could lie somewhere "out there", probably not in this century from a statistical standpoint, but nonetheless "out there".  These would range from, say, the discovery of a major comet on an impact course with the earth, to a substantive communication received from a society somewhere in the universe that is a mere few hundred million years more advanced than we.

But first things first...

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  • rajat

    Posted 10 years and 1 month ago

    rajat from nepal comments on Norm Augustine on the Nature of Challenges
    it is an advance form of technology but if we can get any new idea for the solution it would be more better.
  • Harold M. Frost, III, Ph.D.
    Harold M. Frost, III, Ph.D.

    Posted 10 years and 4 months ago

    Harold M. Frost, III, Ph.D. from Sehffield, Vermont, USA comments on Norm Augustine on the Nature of Challenges
    The nature of challenges is a challenge itself, the challenge of creativity. A good intellectual framework for understanding this connection is the book TURNING POINTS – THE NATURE OF CREATIVITY by Chaomei Chen of Drexel University (Springer Heidelberg Dordrecht, New York, 2011). This book starts with the thematic Ch. 1, “The Gathering Storm,” a title eponymous with the name of a well-known U.S. National Academies report prepared by a committee chaired by NAE member Norm Augustine (whose name is in the title of the blog above), as published by the National Academies Press in 2007. That report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, makes two key points for America confronting a “creeping crisis” in its economic future -- by repairing its K-12 educational system and increasing its federal “investment in basic research.” Accordingly, the report’s Executive Summary states that "The committee identified two key challenges that are tightly coupled to [this] scientific and engineering prowess: creating high-quality jobs for Americans, and responding to the nation’s need for clean, affordable, and reliable energy." Nowhere in the Executive Summary, however, is worker “creativity” mentioned, though the intended effect of implementing its recommendations is of "creating scientists and engineers with the ability to create entire new industries." Indeed, “creativity” is mentioned only four times in the entire 590 page report, such as “Diversity fosters creativity” (p.397), supporting “scientists of exceptional creativity” (p.424), and sponsoring “research into the processes involved in teaching creativity” (p. 470). This Rising Storm report, though, does not take a stand on what creativity is, nor how to identify, foster or use it, for example. However, the book by Prof. Chen mentions “creativity” or “creative” dozens of times, as in its Sec. 1.4, “Transformative Research and the Nature of Creativity” and its Ch. 2, “Creative Thinking.” Accordingly, creativity requires true grit or character, not only in the focus, courage and persistence over the years, even decades, needed to espouse brand new ideas that others tend initially to reject out of hand without examination, but also because of the very great discipline and rigor of propositional or mathematical thinking needed for building up a complex theoretical framework from a number of simple truths, starting with true premises and ending up with not only true conclusions, but definitive, even decisive ones with promise for advancing human knowledge in important ways, that is, in ways that benefit society as a whole. (Even for transformative practical advances of the past, the calculation had to be done first – and correctly – as in the 1970’s by Sir Peter Mansfield of England for the case of NMR for medicine so that he could build and operate successfully his first prototype MRI machine for taking a whole-body scan and then in 2003 share equally the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Paul C. Lauterbur of the USA.) Thus, the nature of a challenge or even a grand challenge is in the thought required. But for a human person to be able to think well while adding innovatively and even importantly to the human store of STEM knowledge, he or she needs to be able to come up with original ideas, and these spring not so much from an impoverished Facebook-like socially-popular avatar of who one wants to be seen or perceived as but instead from a fountain of authentic being, of who one really is. Thus, inclusion of identity diversity in its fullest sense and spectrum is essential. Thus, whenever a teacher or instructor or professor tries to make one’s student into his or her own image, conformity will emerge, not creativity. However, if the intellectual maverick or rebel in one’s student is at least tolerated and supported, then that student’s creativity has a chance to emerge and even bloom and flourish, first in the academic learning environment, but then in the arena of life itself, which includes the workplace whose existence, survival, development and prosperity depend now on the worker’s creative competitiveness in a global marketplace where physical distance between competitors can vanish at the click of a mouse.
  •  better than dynamat
    better than dynamat

    Posted 12 years and 7 months ago

    better than dynamat from comments on Norm Augustine on the Nature of Challenges
    Thanks for your great post. Technology is pretty amazing, its always changing and improving, its so hard to keep up with.
  • Jordan Hester
    Jordan Hester

    Posted 15 years and 3 months ago

    Jordan Hester from Sacramento, CA comments on Norm Augustine on the Nature of Challenges
    Public infrastructure and clean water is very hard to come by in large parts of the world. I would vey hope, that in this century, quality of life will be improved exponentially for two-thirds of the world's population. When I mean public infrastructure, im talking about schools, hospitals, roads, sewage systems, and most of all public roads and highways. I am relying solely on engineers to help with this ever burdening problem. Ethics play a significant role in engineeing and how it revolves around the daily lives of people. If engineers had their way they would want to be fully in charge, instead of having to rely on the government for their plans to be put in place. I too would rely on politicians if they saw what was past their big mouths, and instead would play a greater stance towards the progress of humanity. Ethics or not. Though in my opinion engineering's greatest challenges do reside in ethics. And that is most important of all.
  • fazu

    Posted 16 years and 5 months ago

    fazu from london uk comments on Norm Augustine on the Nature of Challenges
    Dear Sir I agree with you that "In fact, some of engineering's greatest challenges may well prove to reside in the field of ethics. " I think the "Family Institution" is clearly the centre for defining the needs, ethics and potentials of all humans. We need to actualize this human centre of gravity with engineering approach. Then it will create the political will for urgent action and resource allocation to clear the un-intended mess we created leaving the tools of power, created by engineering science, in distasteful hands. I would like to ask you kindly read my weblog, and comment please. Best regards Fazu
  • Aditya Ganti
    Aditya Ganti

    Posted 16 years and 5 months ago

    Aditya Ganti from India comments on Norm Augustine on the Nature of Challenges
    This is a comment that could go on quite a few of the essays - including the one on poverty, on cities and urbanization, bio-fuels etc. but I wanted it placed here because Norm spoke about tearing down barriers between engineering disciplines. What I have to suggest is tearing down the barrier between economics and engineering. Some of the most obvious problems we need to solve are a) The rising income disparity and its consequences b) The lack of basic infrastructure like drinking water in remote parts of this world c) Improving the quality of education all across the world, increasing its reach etc. Any many other such problems ... However for most if not all of these problems there are 2 parts of a solution - -- The Engineering part - that deals with the ability to solve the problem and -- The economic part - that deals with finding the will to implement the solution What do I mean by will? How will such a project be funded? What is in it for the people funding a project? Are they in it for purely altruistic motives? Is there a profit motive? Answers to these questions along with the solution created by engineers will help solve something. Anything less would mean we have a solution but are far away from implementing it.