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The Twenty Grand Technical Challenges of the 21st Century

Does anyone remember David Hilbert?[0] He was the great mathematician who helped figured out how quantum mechanics worked.[1] He helped Einstein develop the theory of general relativity.[1a] In 1900 He proposed the 23 (or so) unsolved  problems of mathematics that when answered, he claimed, would lead to absolute truth for all mathematics? [2]

He actually caused a revolution in mathematics and in our view of the world. He might not have liked some of the answers he got (integer mathematics cannot prove that it is consistent using only integer mathematics, but one can use infinite sets to prove integer mathematics is consistent, definitely not what he was expecting, but a fascinating answer nonetheless. Integer mathematics cannot prove itself consistent because there are an infinite number of statements about integer mathematics that are true but cannot be proven to be true using integer mathematics, which means that integer mathematics cannot be complete.) Hilbert even happened to pick some problems of this type to try and prove (unintentional trick questions!) but everyone agreed these were important problems that needed answering. The only ones that aren't answered in some way are #8: the Riemann hypothesis: essentially that every prime number is a solution to the Riemann equation. And the more obscure #12 and #16, which hardly anybody really cares about...

The Riemann hypothesis is interesting because it gives mathematicians a way to predict prime numbers, all prime numbers, as solutions of an equation. With this assumption you can say a lot about prime numbers. If this hypothesis is wrong... well there's a bunch of mathematics that will have to be redone.

But the point is that with this list of problems: he focussed the minds of the best mathematicians on solving the interesting and impactful problems. We need to do this again. We need to focus the minds of our best technicians onto things that will benefit all mankind.

Which is why I am proposing these 20 Grand Technical Challenges.[3] [4] [5]

The Technical Accomplishments of the Previous Centuries


The 18th Century was the century of steam replacing water power.

We first learned how to harness heat and turn it into work early in the 1700's. [6] You could burn anything and turn it into flour and saw mills, into factories, into pumps and shovels, into anything that needed industrial sized power: like clothes mills.  You no longer had to live along a river to get industrial power. This was a critical factor in allowing the Western United States to be settled.

The 19th Century was the century of transportation. 

In the 1800's we turned that harnessing of energy into portable versions: trains, steamboats automobiles and balloons. A person could travel further, faster and cheaper than ever before. Railroads connected entire continental areas. Steamboats connected continents. Everywhere in the whole world could now be reached by almost anyone in under a few weeks. Worldwide tourism and refugees were the result.

We also invented transportation of power: electricity (and gas and oil.) This really personalized transportation and made it even more affordable. We also learned how to transport information at the speed of light (telegraph, telephone, radio.) And we've continued to make this better, faster and cheaper. Forget all those magical ESP powers! You can talk to anyone anywhere in the world by punching in a few numbers into a pad.  

The 20th Century was the century of the mind. 

Huge advancements in mathematics occurred (most of Hilbert's problems were solved.) Special and General relativity were formulated (overthrowing Newton's theories by being more accurate in certain cases.) Quantum mechanics and relativistic gauge field theories were invented. Electromagnetism was united with the weak and strong force as relativistic quantum field theories. Computers were programmed to think, but not to have consciousness. High bandwidth communication allowed data to be collected and processed faster than any one person could  ever do. All of a sudden a business was smarter than any single person (in a particular limited field of expertise.)

Think about what that says: we routinely make groups of people smarter than any one person. It's all about organizations, how they organize information and how they process it. It's all about groups of people, companies, countries, and how they can increase their use of knowledge in a timely way. That's what progress is: the ability to have more people do more things. And it only comes about by collecting, transmitting and transforming large amounts of data, more data than could fit into any one human mind. Even into any number of human minds. The 20th Century is all about organizing data and transforming that knowledge into portable intelligence, more intelligent that any one person ever was or will be. For instance, we learned how to make nuclear power [7], airplanes [8], jets  [9], rockets ships [10], Global Positioning Satellites [11], chess grand masters[12], go masters [13], the Internet [14], etc... Not bad.

The 21st Century is the century of the magical. 

In the 21st century we will continue the realization of the most incredible dreams humanity has ever had. Think about it...  people go gah-gah over the possibilities of ESP, but... I can already talk to anyone anywhere on the planet at any time. The Internet connects everyone to everyone else all the time (what's the penetration today in 2017? Just over half of the world have internet connectivity and at it's current growth rate, effectively everyone should be connected in a few years. [15]

How about telekinesis? I can move something just with my mind! 

Wait. I can press the garage door opener... and pop! it opens. I can unlock the car remotely. I can tell my home in California to turn on the heat from Idaho. I can see my backyard in California while I vacation in Hawaii.

ESP is S-O-O-O-O-O limited compared to what we can do with technology. Technology is magical. And it's only going to get better. We can do anything we put our minds to. So let's choose the best things to do in the next 100 years.

Here's my proposals:

The Twenty Grand Technical Challenges of the 21st Century: 

  1. Settle Space, Mars, moon, asteroids, the solar system.
  2. Visit a star and report back
  3. Solar gravity radio/light telescope with the highest resolution possible or the equivalent  Planetary system size synthetic aperture telescope. [16]
  4. Cheap and plentiful clean water and food for all.
  5. Renewable power and storage and an interconnected world wide electric grid so all our power can be generated without burning fossil fuels. [17]
  6. Quantum computing
  7. Human eye equivalent camera over 180 degrees that can store a lifetime's worth of video, sound recording at a higher fidelity than humans can hear [18]
  8. Planet sized computing - agents available practically for free, data storage and feed, bandwidth in the THz+, latency the speed of light
  9. Brain-computer interface in THz+
  10. Brain state recording, machine replay, and re-implanting and editing of memories.
  11. Artificial consciousness (copyable and editable)
  12. Planet wide transportation within one hour to anywhere on earth, automated rocket, drone, self-driving cars, self-driving flying quad-copters, hyperloops, jet planes, bullet trains, infinite subways, no traffic backups ever!
  13. Babel fish hearing aid: communication between people who speak different languages (a universal translator.)
  14. Faster Than Light travel
  15. Planetary defense system detection and deflection system [19]
  16. Replacement of religion, including modern emotional liberal humanism with scientific dataism; the tenets of which are that nothing is to be taken on faith: rational logic thought based on first principles that maximize human flourishing is the reigning human belief .
  17. Repair and replacement of every human body part (is plastic surgery it? No, heart replacements, hip replacements, pancreas replacements, even lasik; ..., hmm, when do we tip the scales to make things even better?)
  18. Manipulation of DNA using Crispr and other techniques to end disease.
  19. Robots that can produce any economical good, such as food or entertainment, faster and cheaper than anyone can imagine, actually essentially free.
  20. Virtual reality holodeck

Want to add some? 

I am particularly interested in #14. Faster Than Light Travel: this is the only one, the only one, that requires new physics. That's why it needs some extra help.

Without FTL travel, settlement of anything but the nearest stars become's a separate entity from us because it takes so long and galaxies are beyond the pale.

I'd like to do something about #14. 

The first person to describe the theory behind the Warp drive is Miguel Alcubierre [20], currently a professor of physics at UNAM. It seems like there is very slow progress on advancing his original theory. I'd like to give some incentive to people to actually work on improving the theory and trying to make real measurements in a laboratory and build a real starship. 

It turns out for a paltry sum you can set up a small perpetual foundation that could
1) fund  a new graduate student to work with Professor Alcubierre every year,
2) use the graduate students to evaluate papers that advance the theory or practice of FTL travel and
3) to run the contest that would give out small awards: $20 k first prize and two $10 k runner up prizes every 3 years that improve on the theory or implementation of FTL travel.

What's the paltry sum? A graduate student in theoretical physics costs about $700/month, twice that with room and board included. So the outlays are $17,000 for the grad student and $40 K over 3 years for the winners of the paper competition. This would be at a total cost of $30k/year. 

Setting this up as a perpetual charitable foundation means that you would spend about 5% of your captial every year, or if you earn 5% on all of your principle investment, you could cover this with only around $600 k. Pocket change. 

Anyone want to help me do the paperwork? Or raise the money on KickStarter? Or write the articles of confederation that keeps the program running even after the eventual retirment of Progessor Miguel (How to evaluate papers, how to make measurements. who is picked to administer the next set of graduate students, etc.)

And of course, to set up the FTL prize of $100 M for the first time a person is transported faster than light between two places at least one parsec apart. That might take a little bit of work...

If every person in our town gave $12, we'd have the perpetual foundation funded. The actual $100 million prize might take a bit longer to put together... 

We propose the Miguel Alcubierre foundation to promote the study and implementation of Faster than Light travel of human beings. 


Who's interested in helping?

Thanks for reading, 
Dr. Mike













[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Hilbert

[1] Quantum Mechanical wave functions live in Hilbert space, they do not live in space-time. Measurements cause the wave function to collapse to a particle in a particular state; with the parameters of the state predicted by a particular real probability distribution in space-time that describe where and what a particle is. Between measurements, when the particle is a wave function I like to think of it  in Hilbert space, not space-time. But if you measure the wave function, the particle appears in space-time. And the weird part of it is that the rest of the Universe acts like you made that measurement, instantaneously, no matter how far away. The state of the set of particles changes instantaneously across the Universe. Measurements will be affected, just not enough to let you send information faster than the speed of light. Dang.

[1a]  'Einstein and Hilbert: The Creation of General Relativity', https://arxiv.org/abs/physics/0504179
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hilbert%27s_problems

[3] Several others have proposed Grand Technical Challenges: The Great Engineering Technical challenges: http://www.engineeringchallenges.org/challenges.aspx

[4] And this one: The Grand Challenges in Space (NASA): https://www.nasa.gov/pdf/503466main_space_tech_grand_challenges_12_02_10.pdf

[5] The Grand Challenges in Health (Gates foundation): https://grandchallenges.org/#/map

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steam_power_during_the_Industrial_Revolution

nuclear power [7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_power
airplanes [8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Airplane
jets  [9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jet_aircraft
rockets ships [10] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spacecraft
Global Positioning Satellites [11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_Positioning_System
chess grand masters[12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deep_Blue_(chess_computer)
go masters [13] https://deepmind.com/research/alphago/
Internet [14] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Internet which happened October 29th, 1969 when the first bits on the Internet went from UCLA to SRI (and prompotly crashed the reciever. The first bits ended up being a cyber attack...

[15] http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm Just passed the 50% penetration, doubling every 2 years and six months.

[16] Note, this 'scope needs to look into the solar system to detect killer robots.

[17] It's not that fossil fuels are inherently bad if they are used correctly, it's just that the Sun contains about a trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion times more energy. Constructing these Grand Challenges will require way more energy than exists in fossil fuels, even including fracking every cubic mile of the earth's crust and mining the ocean's deposits. We want more, drilling is just a sideline, it's not big enough.

[18] This is about making better, more compact portable sensors that improve human sensing.

[19] Don't let human kind suffer the fate of the dinosaurs and die a horrible death by asteroid. Contribute to https://b612foundation.org/

[20] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcubierre_drive and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miguel_Alcubierre

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