Two tech lists : MIT Tech Review 2008 and Grand Challenges for Engineering

The National Academy of Engineering has selected the grand challenges of Engineering Throughout history engineering has driven the advance of civilization and completing any of these challenges will be game changers to the course of civilization. The challenges are in four broad categories sustainability, health, vulnerability and joy of living.

MIT Technology Review magazine has selected the top ten emerging technologies for 2008 For some reason many websites are confusing the 2007 list with the 2008 list.

I will be writing several follow up articles to look at the current state of progress to addressing the Grand Challenges of Engineering (both the NAE list and my own) and to discuss both MIT and my own list of emerging technologies for 2008.

A crossover between the two lists is The Grand challenge of reverse engineering the human brain and Connectomics, map all connections between neurons in the mammalian brain, on the MIT Tech list. This is the key to Ray Kurzweil vision of the technological singularity and for one path to the development of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI)
Connectomics aims to map all synaptic connections between neurons in the mammalian brain.

BrainBows: Neurons in the hippocampus, a brain area involved in memory, are labeled in different colors, with their neural projections pointing downward.
Credit: Tamily A. Weissman

In experiments so far, Lichtman’s group has used the technology to trace all the connections in a small slice of the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls balance and movement. Other scientists have already expressed interest in using the technology to study neural connections in the retina, the cortex, and the olfactory bulb, as well as in non-neural cell types.

MIT List of emerging tech for 2008
Modeling Surprise combines data mining and machine learning to help people do a better job of anticipating and coping with unusual events. To monitor surprises effectively the machine has to have both knowledge–a good cognitive model of what humans find surprising–and foresight: some way to predict a surprising event in time for the user to do something about it. By analyzing historical data and backtracking from “surprising events” to the point say thirty minutes before surprise, the system can look to spot when a surprise appears to be developing.

The resulting model works remarkably well. When its parameters are set so that its false-positive rate shrinks to 5 percent, it still predicts about half of the surprises in Seattle’s traffic system. If that doesn’t sound impressive, consider that it tips drivers off to 50 percent more surprises than they would other­wise know about. Today, more than 5,000 Microsoft employees have this “surprise machine” loaded on their smart phones, and many have customized it to reflect their own preferences.

Probabilitistic chips The idea is to lower the operating voltage of parts of a chip–specifically, the logic circuits that calculate the least significant bits, such as the 3 in the number 21,693. The resulting decrease in signal-to-noise ratio means those circuits would occasionally arrive at the wrong answer, but engineers can calculate the probability of getting the right answer for any specific voltage.

Nanoradio a single nanotube radio.

The next step for Zettl and his colleagues is to make their nanoradios send out information in addition to receiving it. But Zettl says that won’t be hard, since a transmitter is essentially a receiver run in reverse. Nano transmitters could open the door to other applications as well. For instance, Zettl suggests that nanoradios attached to tiny chemical sensors could be implanted in the blood vessels of patients with diabetes or other diseases. If the sensors detect an abnormal level of insulin or some other target compound, the transmitter could then relay the information to a detector, or perhaps even to an implanted drug reservoir that could release insulin or another therapeutic on cue. In fact, Zettl says that since his paper on the nanotube radio came out in the journal Nano Letters, he’s received several calls from researchers working on radio-based drug delivery vehicles.

Tiny tunes: A nanoradio is a carbon nanotube anchored to an electrode, with a second electrode just beyond its free end. Credit: John Hersey

Wireless light uses resonant coupling, in which two objects tuned to the same frequency exchange energy strongly but interact only weakly with other objects, for wireless power transmission and charging. Wireless power technology transmits electricity to devices without the use of cables.

Wireless Light
Marin Soljačić and colleagues used magnetic resonance coupling to power a 60-watt light bulb. Tuned to the same frequency, two 60-centimeter copper coils can transmit electricity over a distance of two meters, through the air and around an obstacle.

1. Resonant copper coil attached to frequency converter and plugged into outlet
2. Wall outlet
3. Obstacle
4. Resonant copper coil attached to light bulb
Credit: Bryan Christie Design

Miniturized Atomic Magnetometers the size of a grain of rice require little power and are sensitive to very weak magnetic fields. Tiny, inexpensive magnetometers could lead to portable MRI machines, tools for detecting buried explosive devices, and ways to evaluate mineral deposits remotely. This is part of the larger trend of radically smaller and more precise sensors.

Shrinking sensors: A completed magnetometer built by NIST physicists is shown above. It consists of a small infrared laser (glued to a gold-coated plate), the cesium-filled cell, and a light detector.
Credit: Jim Yost; Courtesy of John Kitching

Offline web applications: Adobe will release AIR early this year; companies such as eBay, AOL, and Anthropologie have built applications using early versions of the software. Google is working on a competing platform called Gears.

Transistors based on graphene, a carbon material one atom thick, could have extraordinary electronic properties.

Interest in graphene was sparked by research into carbon nanotubes as potential successors to silicon. Carbon nanotubes, which are essentially sheets of graphene rolled up into cylinders, also have excellent electronic properties that could lead to ultrahigh-­performance electronics. But nanotubes have to be carefully sorted and positioned in order to produce complex circuits, and good ways to do this haven’t been developed. ­Graphene is far easier to work with. Graphene transistor manufacturing uses techniques very much like those used to manufacture silicon chips today.

Personal reality mining infers human relationships and behavior by applying data-mining algorithms to information collected by cell-phone sensors that can measure location, physical activity, and more.

Cellulolytic enzymes break down the cellulose found in biomass so it can be used as a feedstock for cheaper biofuels that provide a larger gain in energy produced over energy used to produce.

Researchers have reduced the cost of industrial cellulolytic enzymes to 20 to 50 cents per gallon of ethanol produced. But the cost will have to fall to three or four cents per gallon for cellulosic ethanol to compete with corn ethanol.

The Grand Challenges of Engineering List
The range of difficulty of the challenges on the list vary widely. Also, certain challenges such as success in providing energy from fusion would solve other challenges such as providing access to clean water. This is because one of the main hurdles to providing cheap clean water is lack of enough energy. If you have enough cheap clean energy then the clean water automatically follows.

Make solar energy economical
Provide energy from fusion
Develop Carbon Sequestration methods
Manage the nitrogen cycle
Provide access to clean water
Restore and improve urban infrastructure
Advanced Health Informatics
Engineer better medicines
Reverse engineer the brain
Prevent nuclear terror
Secure cyberspace
Enhance virtual reality
Advanced personalized learning
Engineer the tools of scientific discovery