Here is a brief history of my trying to generate a list of remarkable technology challenges for the 21st century, to be presented to the National Academy of Engineering in 2101, by the first person (a Purdue graduate, of course) to step onto the surface of Mars.
I decided to create this list after listening to Neil Armstrong give a presentation on this topic of the 20th Century Great Innovations, followed by publication of the book, "A Century of Innovation". I thought it was such an impressive list and book that I decided to make a list for the 21st century, based on the same criteria; technology that significantly benefits human society. Incidentally, I have purchased and given away maybe 50 of these books, as prizes for innovation, for recognition of innovation talks and presentations, etc. It is a fabulous book!
Three things impressed me about the 20th century list:
1. The benefits were largely universal, affecting people across the globe and at all economic levels (even if large groups of people were unable to reap these benefits).
2. The technologies were diverse and depended on the timely parallel accomplishments of science, particularly quantum theory, nuclear physics and relativity, along with the outstanding achievements in mathematics and medicine.
3. The devices that enabled all these innovations, telephones, airplanes, computers power plants, automobiles, generators, motors, etc., were made in such quantity and quality that they were affordable by large numbers of people, thus making them relatively universally available. Their development and exploitation depended for the most part on the economic wealth generated by the capital assets devoted to their manufacture and distribution; oil wells, iron ore mines, factories, ship and railroads, etc.
So I developed my first list, unranked (the 20th century list, given below, was ranked in order of benefit to society over the 100 years of the 20th century).
20th Century Innovation Topics
4. Water supply and distribution
6. Radio and television
7. Agricultural mechanization
10. Air conditioning/refrigeration
11. Interstate highways
12. Space flight
15. Household appliances
16. Health technologies
17. Petrochemical technology
18. Laser and fiber optics
19. Nuclear technologies
20. High-performance materials
I used this list in my talks about innovation, at universities, conferences, industrial seminars, etc. The list was revised as people made suggestions, and sub-topics being a little more granular in content were added. I've given varieties of this talk at Purdue, Malaysia, MIT, Kansas State, various universities in China, in Israel, as well as at several major professional conferences. These talks are available if one wants a copy.
Eventually, I presented this list to what we call an Industrial Fellows Forum in November 2006; a forum made up of Fellows and Fellow program managers, representing about 27 industrial concerns and represented by 45 Fellows/program managers. We then edited the list, added more sub-topics and voted on the list, in terms of TOP, MIDDLE and BOTTOM innovative domains, although realizing that even the BOTTOM topics had much merit in a list of 21 topics for the 21st century (rather than 20 topics for the 20th century. We actually have 22 topics; when all the votes are in, we will list the top 21 in priority order.
Personally, I see some topics that currently are low on the list, which follows, that seem to me to be too low: AI and robotics, Space Exploration, Preservation of History and Species, for example. But the list is prioritized in voting order.
In parallel to the 20th century list, there are some obvious relationships. For example, the 20th century list depended on the providing of cheap power through electrification, capital assets such as factories, mines, oil wells and refineries, to be impactful; the 21st century list seems to be dependent on providing knowledge resources through the Internet, and computers and communication devices, to be impactful (e.g., weather prediction and control, traffic and logistics, terrorism and security, etc., all depend on availability of vast sources of knowledge and rapid dissemination of this knowledge to the right, connected people). So as the 20th century was dominated by physical capital and lots of physical objects, the 21st century will be dominated by intellectual capital and lots of virtual objects.
Of course, this list will be wrong; had the 20th century list been created in 1907, the automobile, airplane, telephone, even nuclear power, might have been envisioned as important, but certainly the Internet, the computer and many appliances would not have been even thought of. So my list is likely to be wrong; who knows what magic will be developed in 2069 that will be earth-shattering in its ability to improve the quality of life throughout the world!
But the list is what it is, and is given below, in priority order.
21st Century Innovation Topics
1. Energy conservation
2. Resource protection
3. Food and water production and distribution
4. Waste management
5. Education and learning
6. Medicine and prolonging life
7. Security and counter-terrorism
8. New technology
9. Genetics and cloning
10. Global communication
11. Traffic and population logistics
12. Knowledge sharing
13. Integrated electronic environment
15. AI, interfaces and robotics
16. Weather prediction and control
17. Sustainable development
19. Space exploration
20. "Virtualization" and VR
21. Preservation of history
22. Preservation of species
(I have sub-topics for each; for example, resource protection includes gas, liquid, solid, radioactive, hazardous, etc. components. And each of these sub-topics can be further subdivided, to specifically identifiable programs. I have intended to do this in further iterations of the list).
Constable, George, and Somerville, Bob. 2003. A Century of Innovation: Twenty Engineering Achievements that Transformed our Lives. Washington, D.C., National Academies Press. With a forward by Neil Armstrong and an afterward by Arthur C. Clarke. Available online at <http://books.nap.edu/catalog/10726.html>.