On May 25, 1961, President John F Kennedy addressed a joint session of Congress and said "...I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish... "
President Kennedy's historic speech served as a call to arms to the nation. By issuing a near-impossible Grand Challenge, President Kennedy brought together all the key constituencies in academia, industry and government that needed to work closely together to make his challenge a reality. The goal was achieved with the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969.
In the 1980s, the US scientific and engineering community issued its own Grand Challenges, that is, a set of fundamental problems of great importance to the nation, the solution of which required breakthrough improvements across all dimensions of supercomputing, including technology components, hardware architecture, software, algorithms, programming tools and applications. They also required close collaboration among academia, industry and government, as well as between the developers and users of advanced supercomputers.
Some of the key grand challenge applications being pursued at the time were the study of computational fluid dynamics for designing hypersonic planes; weather forecasting for short and long term effects; the efficient recovery of oil; molecular design calculations; and nuclear weapons simulations.
These efforts culminated in the federal government’s launching the High Performance Computing and Communications Initiative (HPCCI) and the National Information infrastructure (NII) in the early 1990s. These programs contributed greatly to the huge advances in the power of supercomputers over the next decade, as well as to the well known explosion of the Internet into the larger society in the mid ‘90s.
While the focus on Grand Challenges was very important to science and engineering, there was some criticism that the impact of the HPCCI on the average citizen was relatively minor. For example, a 1991 report by the Technology CEO Council (then known as the Computer Systems Policy Project or CSPP) pointed out that "... expanding the vision of HPCCI to include a more comprehensive view of what HPCCI technologies can make possible in the future will increase the return on the research investments made in the program."
The expanded vision advocated by the CSPP included better healthcare and medical services; lifelong learning; improved services for senior citizens, the disabled and housebound; enhanced industrial design and manufacturing technology; and broad access to public and private data bases, electronic mail and other unique resources.
What are some of the Grand Challenges that should capture our imagination and bring us all together in collaborative efforts when we look at the future from the vantage point of May 2007? What all-important and near-impossible new problems can we now tackle, given the incredible progress we have made in technology, especially information technologies, in the last twenty years? Let me summarize, in no particular priority, the five such grand challenge problems that are top of mind for me personally.
Human-Oriented Complex Systems: I am fascinated by the impact of IT, the Internet and related systems capabilities on people-based organizations, including companies, industry ecosystems and economies. I really believe that we are at the brink of a technology-based revolution that could have the same kind of profound influence on all aspects of business, society and our personal lives that the Industrial Revolution had on previous generations. This time, the revolution is not about applying technology to the design and manufacture of physical things, rather it is about applying technology to human-based organizations of all kinds - thus transforming the very nature of enterprises, economies, and work itself.
Information-based Healthcare: There are two complementary challenges associated with healthcare and related areas. The first is research-oriented. In the 20th century, physics was viewed as the key discipline pushing the boundaries of computational sciences. That role has been now taken over by biology, and more specifically computational biology and bioinformatics. They hold the promise of revolutionizing the practice of medicine, by, for example, enabling us to use genomics information for personalized patient care, and mapping the human brain so we can better understand and treat psychiatric disorders like autism, schizophrenia and depression.
Then there are the very practical challenges facing healthcare today including efficiency, costs, safety and capacity. Most industries are way ahead of healthcare in successfully applying methodologies like Lean Production and Six Sigma to systematically improve their processes. The healthcare industry must embrace such engineering and management practices to achieve continuous improvements in key measures like clinical outcomes, patient safety, and productivity.
Learning in the Knowledge-based Age: It should not come as a surprise that as we move to an increasingly knowledge-based, fast changing economy, lifelong learning is more important than ever. Learning is now not just something we do in school when we are young, but rather, something we have to continue to do all through our lives if we hope to keep up with the constantly changing skills requirements of the marketplace.
The Web has become a wonderful platform for learning, in particular its evolution into a collaborative and highly visual platform through Web 2.0 and Virtual Worlds capabilities respectively. Such new IT-based learning applications could help workers acquire the required training for new jobs in a more experiential, "hands-on" way. They could also help us better reach out to children with disabilities who have trouble reading and processing verbal language, as well as to any children that for whatever reason are not responding well to existing teaching methods.
The Search for Clean, Plentiful Energy: Energy may very well be the single biggest problem facing humanity. The world faces major challenges in finding reliable supplies of energy, and reducing the environmental impact of energy production and use. Energy is also directly linked to some of the toughest problems we face in the 21st century, such as water, food, poverty, transportation, terrorism and war.
A number of major efforts are aimed at obtaining cheap, clean energy from renewable sources, such as wind, water and solar power. Biofuels are one of the most exciting such efforts, but require considerable scientific and engineering advances, such as devising new technologies to enhance and accelerate the conversion of organic matter to biofuel molecules and using modern plant science to develop species that produce a higher yield of energy molecules and can be grown on land not suitable for food production.
The Long, Cultural War: National security used to primarily mean having a strong military that hopefully serves mostly as a deterrent, but that can quickly be deployed and win whatever wars and skirmishes arise around the world. This is absolutely necessary - but no longer sufficient. The conflicts in which we now increasingly find ourselves are much more complex, spread out across the globe, and involve a variety of enemies organized into small groups that are usually integrated into the local civilian populations.
The Long War is the name that the US Military has appropriately given to this different kind of 21st century conflict. The Long War has the feel of a battle of civilizations or cultures. It is fast changing and difficult to plan; with a need to focus on people and cultures not just on weapons. New tools and skills are needed to fight such a global, complex, information-intensive and unpredictable long war. The Web's role as a global platform helping people around the world to communicate, share information, and self-organize may very well be the ultimate weapon in the Long War.
All these Grand Challenge problems share a few key characteristics. They are very, very difficult, requiring heroic breakthroughs from groups in multiple disciplines working closely together around the world. They must have a significant scientific, economic and/or social impact. But, perhaps most important, they must capture our imaginations, so we become enthralled by the possibilities and find within ourselves something that lets us achieve the near impossible.