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World's greatest engineering challenges

World's greatest engineering challenges

Reverse engineering the brain, better medicines and managing the nitrogen cycle are among the greatest engineering challenges of the 21st century, according to the US National Academy of Engineering (NAE).

The list also identified making cyberspace secure and perfecting nuclear fusion among 14 daunting tasks that humanity must complete if it is to continue to flourish. It was compiled by a committee of 18 leading experts from a variety of fields including geneticist Craig Venter and Google co-founder Larry Page.

The "Grand Engineering Challenges" published on the NAE's website are divided into four themes - sustainability, health, reducing vulnerability and the joy of living.

"We asked that these be things that were visionary and terribly important to human life, but also doable," says the academy's president, Charles Vest. "Some are imperative to our survival on this planet, all will improve our quality of life on this world."

Accelerating returnsFor committee member Raymond Kurzweil, the inventor and futurist, the key to continued innovations will be the transformation of different fields to information technology, a term once reserved only for computers. "Once an area of science and technology becomes information technology it is subject to the law of accelerating returns. It doubles every year. Health and medicine up until a few years ago was not an information technology. The human genome was the software and now health and medicine is advancing exponentially."

The NAE established its engineering challenges committee in 2006 at the behest of the U.S. National Science Foundation and solicited input from engineers, scientists and the general public.

"When we look back on it I believe the achievements of the 21st century will be as great as those of the 20th century," said committee chair William Perry, who listed the automobile, airplanes, TV, antibiotics and computers among the important innovations spawned in the past 100 years.

The list was unveiled on Friday at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston, US. The committee did not rank the challenges but is offering the public an opportunity to do so on its website.

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