Grand Challenges for the 21st Century

I've been thinking lately on the subject of Grand Challenges - those things that seem too big to address now but which are in fact achievable. In the last decades we have seen Challenges such as the complete sequencing of the human genome, the first fully-autonomous robotic vehicle, the landing of spacecraft on Mars, and finding the last significant component of the Quantum Physics model (the Higgs Boson) come to pass, so perhaps it is a good time to muse on new challenges.

These are not in any particular order.

Simulating the Human Body

It seems to me that one way to explore the Human Body would be to set up a computer simulation of it that was accurate (enough) in the way that it interacts at the molecular level. While this is an extremely complicated operation, it is mainly so because there are so many molecules. Estimates vary, but with a lower limit of 10 million million (1013) cells in a body, and hundreds of molecules per cell, there are quite a few! Some shortcuts could of course be made. For example. you could explore the operation of the heart muscle without necessarily simulating the whole body as well. 

Why would this be a Good Thing. Well, in my view:

  • In simulating the cells of the body, we would learn a lot in just conceiving the simulation and setting it up, in terms of what works and what doesn't. Such a simulation would, almost by definition, push the bounds of both computing, biochemistry and genomics, and bring benefits to all three fields.
  • A simulation of a human would in theory be capable of determining whether drugs and other treatments have the desired effects much faster than it is possible to do using physical trials, not because the simulation would be faster (it almost certainly wouldn't be) but that with a simulation you can go in and examine the state of things and "watch" what is going on, in a way that is mostly impossible with real people.
  • A simulation may well offer up treatments that are currently impossible to implement or even concieve of, as we understand far more about how the biological systems work.
  • Finally, a simulation may well offer additional ways by which we may be able to assist in repairing and regrowing tissues, and be able to feed back into disciplines such as robotics.

Problems to solve include:

  • How to control and monitor a simulation with even 100 million cells.

Commercial Nuclear Fusion Reactors

Not to be confused with Nuclear Fission, which has been the dominant "nuclear" thing of the 20th Century, I believe that Fusion - the joining together of molecules to make larger ones, is one of the more significant of the energy technologies we have failed to explore properly, (along with Nuclear Fission based on Thorium, which I only recently heard of because it doesn't produce anything like the amount of nasty output, but also doesn't produce mulitarily useful byproducts).

Fusion is how the Sun keeps hot: it has huge potential, but the downside of needing to create Sun-like places for it to happen. One version of this has been tried using very high powered lasers to bombard a small target, and another uses powerful magnets to constrain the energies. So far there has been limited success, but, as they say, nothing comes easy.

Why would this be a Good Thing? Well, in my view:

  • Earth-based Fusion most often uses an isotope of Hydrogen called Duterium as its source. Duterium occurs naturally in seawater in amounts that we could power the world for thousands of years without exhausting it. Its removal has no known impact on the environment and nothing we know of "uses" it.
  • The ouput of a fusion reactor is, most frequently, 100% pure water, uncontaminated by anything, plus, of course, energy. There are no byproducts to get rid of or bury
  • The "green" sources of energy commonly used today suffer from natural outages: Fusion reactors can be used to serve the baseload demand, a need that we don't have a "green" solution for.

Problems to solve include:

  • How to constrain the massive temperatures and pressures needed safely.
  • How to scale up the experiments done to date to a size useful for a country's need.

Creating a Viable World Economy

I have watched in despair as the world crashed around me.

Well, I guess we could all say that. The last decade has seen globalisation run riot and die horribly, but we can't, and therefore shouldn't try to, turn back the clock. We are now global society and have in recent decades been behaving like the badly behaved children in "Lord of the Flies". We need to grow up and behave like adults, and quickly.

I was recently reading about MMT (Modern Monetary Theory), which proposes an alternate take on how economies like ours work. I'm not enough of an economist to judge, but it concerns me that so few people are stepping out of the box to see if there are other ways forward. Instead we have a whole raft of entrenched positions, "bought" policies and selfish views being paraded as the way forward. As somebody brought up with a scientific training, it appalls me that we still, in the 21st Century, hear of policymakers picking the "evidence" they like and disregarding that they don't.

Problems to solve include:

  • Regaining control of governments who, even in "Western Democracies", are largely out of control of themselves, let alone their countries.
  • Giving international organisations, such as the IMF, sufficient teeth to give errant countries "tough love" without them becoming a problem in themselves.
  • Regaining control of the money: possibly through limiting what the money markets can do (politically hard), perhaps by use of taxation (e.g. the faster you trade the larger the tax)
  • Limiting the use of the military: it is widely stated by police that youths shouldn't carry knives (or guns!) on the street because that escalates the stakes and leads to more trouble. Surely this applies to nations too?

I will leave it there... suffice to say, this is the grandest challenge of them all: survival.

Robotic Self-replication in Space

Those who currently "do stuff" in space constrantly grapple with the immense cost of taking mass into orbit. Whether it's water or metal it costs. One challenge I think we are up for is to build a robot that can replicate itself from, say, what is found on the moon. That is to say: Find, Mine, Refine, Shape, build. Whatever it takes. Perhaps to begin with we could seed it with a supply of the really difficult bits - perhaps those are microchips, or perhaps it's some unlikely alloys of metal. But essentially, send to the moon a robot that is a robot factory.

Of course, once you can do that on a large scale - perhaps you have twenty robot factories - you might tell them to just stockpile refined materials rather than build more. And then you could send another robot that uses those stockpiles / robots to make larger things: perhaps rocket motors, perhaps human bio-environments.

Basically, there's not much that's on Earth and isn't in space. The problem we have is that all the factories are down here, not out there, and using humans in factories out there is impractical. So use robots to make factories.

Why would this be a Good Thing? Well, in my view:

  • Human's best side is shown when we are given a "dream", a goal that shines.
  • The popularity of shows like Stargate and Battlestar Galactica proves to me at least that the dream of the stars hasn't left us.
  • Earth will one day run out of resources, or space, and we humans will then either self-destruct or move on. I don't think that time is that far off: perhaps a century, perhaps three. This is one way forward to a "move on" starting point.
  • Such technology may very well provide useful things "back home". For example, mining robots may become a preferable route to mining deep coal on Earth, and the ability to self-replicate may provide insights to delf-repair mechanisms in all sorts of situations.

Problems to solve include:

  • Finding stuff: the robot will have to identify sources as well as mine them.
  • Sufficient minaturisation of the things done normally on a larger-scale on Earth, such as refining and smelting;
  • Is the Moon the right place anyway: it still has gravity and perhaps an asteroid's almost-zero gravity would be more helpful.
  • Let's Avoid the Stargate "Replicator" syndrome!
  • ... lots more... but you get the idea.


I hope you've enjoyed my "Grand Challenges". We'll have to wait and see how they turn out!