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Is it Time to Reverse-Engineer The Brain?

More affordable solar energy? Energy from fusion? Reverse-engineer the brain?

Those three are among the 14 "grand challenges" for the 21st century announced today by the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (NAE). The top 14 list is the result of meetings started in 2006 by a diverse committee of experts from around the world. Commenting on the announcement, the U.S. National Science Foundation said the quality of our lives would improve if these challenges are met.

In addition to the committee of experts, the effort also received worldwide input from prominent engineers and scientists, as well as from the general public, over a one-year period via an interactive Web site. The NAE said the panel's conclusions were reviewed by more than 50 subject-matter experts.

Now the public gets to vote.

[cob:Related_Articles]The NAE's Web site has descriptions of all 14 challenges leaving it to the public to vote on which should be given top priority. Rather than focus on predictions or gee-whiz gadgets, the NAE said the goal was to identify what needs to be done to help people and the planet thrive.

"We chose engineering challenges that we feel can, through creativity and commitment, be realistically met, most of them early in this century," said committee chair and former U.S. Secretary of Defense William J. Perry in a statement. "Some can be, and should be, achieved as soon as possible."

The choices range from very specific engineering challenges:

  • Develop carbon sequestration methods
  • Provide energy from fusion
  • Enhance virtual reality
  • Reverse-engineer the brain
  • Secure Cyberspace

To more open-ended challenges:

  • Advance health informatics
  • Manage the nitrogen cycle
  • Engineer better medicines
  • Prevent nuclear terror
  • Advance personal learning

The Grand Challenges site features a five-minute video overview of the project along with committee member interview excerpts. A podcast of the news conference announcing the challenges will also be available on the site starting next week.

"Meeting these challenges would be 'game changing,'" said NAE president Charles M. Vest. "Success with any one of them could dramatically improve life for everyone."

Among the notable tech leaders on the committee are: Larry Page, co-founder Google; W. Daniel Hillis, chairman and co-founder, Applied Minds; Dean Kamen of Segway fame and founder and president, DEKA Research and Development; and Raymond Kurzweil, chairman and chief executive officer, Kurzweil Technologies.