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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Inviting business ideas to save our planet

This piece is inclined towards culture, society, science, mathematics and social cause.

Day in and day out we often think about iPhone, Ferrari, Google and so on as the biggest inventions/engineering man has ever made. We consider these as ‘Rocket Sciences’. Of course these are some which disrupted the industry, created new business models. But more often we forget about the problems our society/community faces (or) problems which needs to be solved that could make the world a measurable more livable place for everyone.

Harvard Law school and Duke University professor Vivek Wadhwa who writes in Techcrunch as ‘Guest Author’ and former Intel chairman/CEO Craig Barrett recently debated about tech education on Techcrunch. It’s an interesting readwhich tells why US need more engineers/scientists who graduates from colleges /universities with science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees.

While Vivek makes a point stating better incentives is needed for American children to study mathematics and science in addition to teaching about world culture, geography and global markets, Craig states to improve Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education and K-12 education. Vivek went on to state that we need to create the excitement about science and engineering at the national level and make it worthwhile financially for the people who are graduating with science degrees to solve the problems facing our planet.

My triggering point for this post was a post by Vivek who asks “What’s better: Saving the world or Building (yet) another Facebook App”? In one of the hackathon event in UC Berkeley, students were asked to build applications. After working non-stop for 18 hours, 32 teams showcased various applications they developed which ranges from server side rendering of games to analyzing of twitter streams to building a gaming interface for a neural headset. But none of the team (except one) developed applications which can change the way we live (or) build businesses that do well for the planet. And to make the matters worse the judges awarded the grand prize to one team who developed a polling technology for university classrooms and for conferences.

So what if we challenge the students and the Silicon Valley to build business that do good for the planet. But the problem Vivek tells is that Students and Silicon Valley really don’t know what problems need to be solved and what they can do to solve them. Even VC’s really dont know about that. To justify this if you happen to read the latest Emerging Technology trends report you can know where the investments from Angel investors are going (Social Media, Gaming, and Virtual Worlds as hot upcoming).

What are the challenges which are facing our planet? In 2008, Charles Vest, the president of the National Academy of Engineering brought together a group of prominent deans of engineering schools from around the country to create a list of Grand Challenges that can be solved by engineers, in our lifetime. He believed that engineers will seek ways to put the knowledge they acquired into practice and meet these challenges which will lead to a better quality of life.

Here is the list of 14 grand challenges the deans of engineering schools created. Let me explain each in a shorter format. For detailed study of the challenges you may want to visit the site engineering challenges.

#1 – Make solar energy economical: This challenge discuss the growing importance to use solar energy as day-by-day oil, natural gas and coal becomes extinct. It highlights why solar energy is important and ways with which we can store solar energy, how we can achieve greater efficiency using nanocrystals approach and the costs involved in doing the same.

#2 – Provide energy from fusion: It throws lights on the challenges in generating energy using nuclear reactors and what are the problems which needs to be addressed to make the fusion process efficient, economical and environmental friendly.

#3 - Develop carbon sequestration methods: You may have heard about greenhouse gases, ozone layer, global warming. Co2 emissions are the prime contributor towards global warming which needs to be addressed. One challenge engineers are working is to find smart ways to capture and store excess carbon dioxide to prevent global warming.

#4 - Manage the nitrogen cycle: It’s closely related to the above. We need to find smart ways in waste management, improved fertilization techniques to control excess nitrogen which can cause major problems in rivers and coastal waters.

#5 - Provide access to clean water: While we may use TATA swach, much parts of the world remain isolated from accessing clean water to drink. How do we reduce the cost incurred in desalination of water (i.e. extracting salt from sea water and provide drinking water), recycling of wastewater etc.

#6 - Restore and improve urban infrastructure: It discuss the growing needs to provide better infrastructure through integrated transportation systems, removing the manual work involved in construction industries through advancement in computers and robotics. For example in Hong Kong, several transportation services are linked in a system that allows a single smart card to be used to pay for all the services, including gas and parking.

#7 – Advance health informatics: Electronic Health Records for everyone by 2014 is one of the major reforms Obama administration has laid out in the Healthcare reform for which the bill is passed recently. The present day healthcare facilities are very costly and does not cover all the people especially those who are un-insured. While there are movements like Health 2.0 to address the challenges, there is a lack of sophisticated health information systems. How do we improve health information systems?

#8 -Engineer better medicines: One engineering challenge is developing better systems to rapidly assess a patient’s genetic profile; another is collecting and managing massive amounts of data on individual patients; and yet another is the need to create inexpensive and rapid diagnostic devices such as gene chips and sensors able to detect minute amounts of chemicals in the blood.

#9 - Reverse-engineer the brain: How do you create computers which are capable of emulating human intelligence (i.e. to emulate our brain)?

#10 - Prevent nuclear terror: Challenges include: (1) how to secure the materials; (2) how to detect, especially at a distance; (3) how to render a potential device harmless; (4) emergency response, cleanup, and public communication after a nuclear explosion; and (5) determining who did it. All of these have engineering components; some are purely technical and others are systems challenges.

#11 - Secure cyberspace: As more people turn to internet there is a growing need to protect critical systems like banking, individual identities. Some challenges in these areas is to include by providing better security for data flowing over various routes on the Internet so that the information cannot be diverted, monitored, or altered. Current protocols for directing data traffic on the Internet can be exploited to make messages appear to come from someplace other than their true origin.

#12 - Enhance virtual reality: True virtual reality creates the illusion of actually being in a difference space. It can be used for training, treatment, and communication. Rendering of a virtual human that can purposefully interact with a real person — for example, through speech recognition, the generation of meaningful sentences, facial expression, emotion, skin color and tone, and muscle and joint movements — is still beyond the capabilities of real-time computer graphics and artificial intelligence.

#13 -Advance personalized learning: When we are young we often learn word-by-word (or) using phonics (i.e. read letter by letter to grasp the word). This varies from person to person as learning is personal. But the current systems in place are not helpful for everybody as the ability to learn varies. This challenge is to find ways to develop computing systems in place which can aide personalized learning.

#14 - Engineer the tools of scientific discovery: There are many unanswered questions of nature for which research is going. The problem is availability of tools, instruments, and systems that make it possible to acquire new knowledge about the physical and biological worlds. How do we engineer tools, instruments and systems which can aide in solving unanswered questions of nature?

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