A Moderate Solution to the Technological Challenge to Human Existence
Introduction to the Grand Challenges for Engineering
Throughout human history, engineering has driven the advance of
From the metallurgists who ended the Stone Age to the shipbuilders who
united the world’s peoples through travel and trade, the past witnessed
many marvels of engineering prowess. As civilization grew, it was
nourished and enhanced with the help of increasingly sophisticated tools
for agriculture, technologies for producing textiles, and inventions
transforming human interaction and communication. Inventions such as the
mechanical clock and the printing press irrevocably changed
There are significant differences between science and technology.What
poses a grave and direct challenge to human life is technology.Although
technological advancements have often been viewed in a positive light
since the Enlightenment,the negative influence on the cultivation of
virtue and the worth of life has also been identified for ages.The new
challenge brought by contemporary technologies to human beings is that
they demonstrate a “clear and present danger” to the very existence of
the human species.One answer to the technological challenge is “to
return to nature.” If carried through,it means that we will have to give
up not only technologies,but also every kind of pursuit of knowledge,and
politically,we will have to keep our state small and isolated.The price
is impossibly high because human beings by nature are not natural.A
moderate solution is to establish mechanisms to identify and control the
risks of new technologies.Through them,people need to be made truly
informed,and to he encouraged to participate in policy making.But at the
same time,a full democratization in policy making is also
problematic,and an ideal mechanism is a hybrid that combines the
democratic elements with the meritocratic ones.
In the modern era, the Industrial Revolution brought engineering’s
influence to every niche of life, as machines supplemented and replaced
human labor for countless tasks, improved systems for sanitation
enhanced health, and the steam engine facilitated mining, powered trains
and ships, and provided energy for factories.
philosophy/return to nature/policy-making in technologies/hybrid regime
In the century just ended, engineering recorded its grandest
accomplishments. The widespread development and distribution of
electricity and clean water, automobiles and airplanes, radio and
television, spacecraft and lasers, antibiotics and medical imaging, and
computers and the Internet are just some of the highlights from a
century in which engineering revolutionized and improved virtually every
aspect of human life. Find out more about the GREAT ENGINEERING
ACHIEVEMENTS OF THE 20TH CENTURY from a separate NAE website.
For all of these advances, though, the century ahead poses challenges as
formidable as any from millennia past. As the population grows and its
needs and desires expand, the problem of sustaining civilization’s
continuing advancement, while still improving the quality of life, looms
more immediate. Old and new threats to personal and public health demand
more effective and more readily available treatments. Vulnerabilities to
pandemic diseases, terrorist violence, and natural disasters require
serious searches for new methods of protection and prevention. And
products and processes that enhance the joy of living remain a top
priority of engineering innovation, as they have been since the taming
of fire and the invention of the wheel.
In each of these broad realms of human concern — sustainability, health,
vulnerability, and joy of living — specific grand challenges await
engineering solutions. The world’s cadre of engineers will seek ways to
put knowledge into practice to meet these grand challenges. Applying the
rules of reason, the findings of science, the aesthetics of art, and the
spark of creative imagination, engineers will continue the tradition of
forging a better future.
Foremost among the challenges are those that must be met to ensure the
future itself. The Earth is a planet of finite resources, and its
growing population currently consumes them at a rate that cannot be
sustained. Widely reported warnings have emphasized the need to develop
new sources of energy, at the same time as preventing or reversing the
degradation of the environment.
Sunshine has long offered a tantalizing source of ENVIRONMENTALLY
FRIENDLY POWER, bathing the Earth with more energy each hour than the
planet’s population consumes in a year. But capturing that power,
converting it into useful forms, and especially storing it for a rainy
day, poses provocative engineering challenges.
Another popular proposal for long-term energy supplies is NUCLEAR
FUSION, the artificial re-creation of the sun’s source of power on
Earth. The quest for fusion has stretched the limits of engineering
ingenuity, but hopeful developments suggest the goal of practical fusion
power may yet be attainable.
Engineering solutions for both solar power and nuclear fusion must be
feasible not only technologically but also economically when compared
with the ongoing use of fossil fuels. Even with success, however, it
remains unlikely that fossil fuels will be eliminated from the planet’s
energy-source budget anytime soon, leaving their environment-associated
issues for engineers to address. Most notoriously, evidence is mounting
that the carbon dioxide pumped into the air by the burning of fossil
fuels is increasing the planet’s temperature and threatens disruptive
effects on climate. Anticipating the continued use of fossil fuels,
engineers have explored technological methods of CAPTURING THE CARBON
DIOXIDE produced from fuel burning and sequestering it underground.
A further but less publicized environmental concern involves the
atmosphere’s dominant component, the element nitrogen. The
biogeochemical cycle that extracts nitrogen from the air for its
incorporation into plants — and hence food — has become altered by human
activity. With widespread use of fertilizers and high-temperature
industrial combustion, humans have doubled the rate at which nitrogen is
removed from the air relative to pre-industrial times, contributing to
smog and acid rain, polluting drinking water, and even worsening global
warming. Engineers must design COUNTERMEASURES FOR NITROGEN CYCLE
PROBLEMS, while maintaining the ability of agriculture to produce
adequate food supplies.
Chief among concerns in this regard is the QUALITY AND QUANTITY OF
WATER, which is in seriously short supply in many regions of the world.
Both for personal use — drinking, cleaning, cooking, and removal of
waste — and large-scale use such as irrigation for agriculture, water
must be available and sustainably provided to maintain quality of life.
New technologies for desalinating sea water may be helpful, but
small-scale technologies for local water purification may be even more
effective for personal needs.
Naturally, water quality and many other environmental concerns are
closely related to questions of human health. While many of the health
scourges of the past have been controlled and even eliminated by modern
medicine, other old ones such as malaria remain deadly, and newer
problems have remained resistant to medical advances, requiring new
medical technologies and methods.
One goal of biomedical engineering today is fulfilling the promise of
personalized medicine. Doctors have long recognized that individuals
differ in their susceptibility to disease and their response to
treatments, but medical technologies have generally been offered as “one
size fits all.” Recent cataloging of the human genetic endowment, and
deeper understanding of the body’s complement of proteins and their
biochemical interactions, offer the prospect of identifying the specific
factors that determine sickness and wellness in any individual.
An important way of exploiting such information would be the development
of methods that allow doctors to forecast the benefits and side effects
of potential treatments or cures. “REVERSE-ENGINEERING” THE BRAIN, to
determine how it performs its magic, should offer the dual benefits of
helping treat diseases while providing clues for new approaches to
computerized artificial intelligence. Advanced computer intelligence, in
turn, should enable automated diagnosis and prescriptions for treatment.
And COMPUTERIZED CATALOGS OF HEALTH INFORMATION should enhance the
medical system’s ability to track the spread of disease and analyze the
comparative effectiveness of different approaches to prevention and
Another reason to DEVELOP NEW MEDICINES is the growing danger of attacks
from novel disease-causing agents. Certain deadly bacteria, for
instance, have repeatedly evolved new properties, conferring resistance
against even the most powerful antibiotics. New viruses arise with the
power to kill and spread more rapidly than disease-prevention systems
are designed to counteract.
As a consequence, vulnerability to biological disaster ranks high on the
list of unmet challenges for biomedical engineers — just as engineering
solutions are badly needed to COUNTER THE VIOLENCE OF TERRORISTS and the
destructiveness of earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural dangers.
Technologies for early detection of such threats and rapid deployment of
countermeasures (such as vaccines and antiviral drugs) rank among the
most urgent of today’s engineering challenges.
Even as terrorist attacks, medical epidemics, and natural disasters
represent acute threats to the quality of life, more general concerns
pose challenges for the continued enhancement of living. Engineers face
the grand challenge of renewing and SUSTAINING THE AGING INFRASTRUCTURES
OF CITIES AND SERVICES, while preserving ecological balances and
enhancing the aesthetic appeal of living spaces.
And the external world is not the only place where engineering matters;
the inner world of the mind should benefit from IMPROVED METHODS OF
INSTRUCTION AND LEARNING, including ways to tailor the mind’s growth to
its owner’s propensities and abilities. Some new methods of instruction,
such as COMPUTER-CREATED VIRTUAL REALITIES, will no doubt also be
adopted for entertainment and leisure, furthering engineering’s
contributions to the joy of living.
The spirit of curiosity in individual minds and in society as a whole
can be further promoted through engineering endeavors ENHANCING
EXPLORATION at the frontiers of reality and knowledge, by providing new
tools for investigating the vastness of the cosmos or the inner
intricacy of life and atoms.
All of these examples merely scratch the surface of the challenges that
engineers will face in the 21st century. The problems described here
merely illustrate the magnitude and complexity of the tasks that must be
mastered to ensure the sustainability of civilization and the health of
its citizens, while reducing individual and societal vulnerabilities and
enhancing the joy of living in the modern world.
None of these challenges will be met, however, without finding ways to
overcome the barriers that block their accomplishment. Most obviously,
engineering solutions must always be designed with economic
considerations in mind — for instance, despite environmental
regulations, cheaper polluting technologies often remain preferred over
more expensive, clean technologies.
Engineers must also face formidable political obstacles. In many parts
of the world, entrenched groups benefiting from old systems wield
political power that blocks new enterprises. Even where no one group
stands in the way of progress, the expense of new engineering projects
can deter action, and meeting many of the century’s challenges will
require unprecedented levels of public funding. Current government
budgets for U.S. infrastructure improvement alone falls hundreds of
billions of dollars short of estimated needs. Securing the funds
necessary to meet all the great challenges will require both popular and
political support. Engineers must join with scientists, educators, and
others to encourage and promote improved science, technology,
engineering, and math (STEM) education in the schools and enhanced flow
of technical information to the public at large — conveying not just the
facts of science and engineering, but also an appreciation of the ways
that scientists and engineers acquire the knowledge and tools required
to meet society’s needs.
Public understanding of engineering and its underlying science will be
important to support the calls for funding, as well as to enhance the
prospect for successful adoption of new technologies. The ultimate users
of engineering’s products are people with individual and personal
concerns, and in many cases, resistance to new ways of doing things will
have to be overcome. Teachers must revamp their curricula and teaching
styles to benefit from electronic methods of personalized learning.
Doctors and hospital personnel will have to alter their methods to make
use of health informatics systems and implement personalized medicine.
New systems for drug regulation and approval will be needed when
medicines are designed for small numbers of individuals rather than
patient populations as a whole.
A prime example where such a barrier exists is in the challenge of
REDUCING VULNERABILITY TO ASSAULTS ON CYBERSPACE, such as identity theft
and computer viruses designed to disrupt Internet traffic. Systems for
keeping cyberspace secure must be designed to be compatible with human
users — cumbersome methods that have to be rigorously observed don’t
work, because people find them inconvenient. Part of the engineering
task will be discovering which approaches work best at ensuring user
cooperation with new technologies.
In sum, governmental and institutional, political and economic, and
personal and social barriers will repeatedly arise to impede the pursuit
of solutions to problems. As they have throughout history, engineers
will have to integrate their methods and solutions with the goals and
desires of all society’s members.
And “all society’s members” must be interpreted literally. Perhaps the
most difficult challenge of all will be to disperse the fruits of
engineering widely around the globe, to rich and poor alike.
In the world today, many of engineering’s gifts to civilization are
distributed unevenly. At least a billion people do not have access to
adequate supplies of clean water. Countless millions have virtually no
medical care available, let alone personalized diagnosis and treatment.
Solving computer security problems has little meaning for the majority
of the world’s population on the wrong side of the digital divide.
Sustainable supplies of food, water, and energy; protection from human
violence, natural disaster, and disease; full access to the joys of
learning, exploration, communication, and entertainment — these are
goals for all of the world’s people.
So in pursuing the century’s great challenges, engineers must frame
their work with the ultimate goal of universal accessibility in mind.
Just as Abraham Lincoln noted that a house divided against itself cannot
stand, a world divided by wealth and poverty, health and sickness, food
and hunger, cannot long remain a stable place for civilization to
Through the engineering accomplishments of the past, the world has
become smaller, more inclusive, and more connected. The challenges
facing engineering today are not those of isolated locales, but of the
planet as a whole and all the planet’s people. Meeting all those
challenges must make the world not only a more technologically advanced
and connected place, but also a more sustainable, safe, healthy, and
joyous — in other words, better — place.
Copyright © 2017 National Academy of Sciences on behalf of the National
Academy of Engineering. All rights reserved.