Top 10 Takeaways From Seattle’s Engineering Summit: Electro-Active Wallpaper, Facebook Is Watching You, and Dendreon Detractors

5/6/10Follow @gthuang

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the “flexible path” plan for human spaceflight laid out by NASA earlier this year. “I think it flunks Washington [DC] 101,” Griffin said. “I don’t think ‘flexible path’ is sustainable.”

1. Grand challenges are messy—but they’re the urgent future of society.

In organizing this event, the Seattle summit leaders chose to highlight some of the region’s top strengths—computing, biotech and medical devices, and aerospace. John Markoff, science and technology correspondent with the New York Times, helped bring it all together at the end with a Q&A session. He asked whether the 14 grand challenges (meant to be tackled by 2050) are really the right problems to focus on—and how to go about solving them.

O’Donnell pointed out the need for objective measures of progress. “In the past 30 years, what we’ve seen in devices and drug-devices, is life expectancy has increased by 10 years,” he said, thanks to things like management of cardiovascular disease. “I would like to measure [progress on the grand challenges] against some goals.”

Besides measurable goals like life expectancy, there were less tangible goals, like figuring out how to inspire a new generation of engineers. “What I like about the list is, I’m in favor of having aspirational goals,” said Lazowska, a UW professor of computer science and engineering.

Smarr added, “The encapsulation of the problems that are going to be hitting us would infer some combination of the 14 grand challenges. But what bothers me is they’re open-ended.” Meaning, “40 years is nothing to deploy a completely new system,” he said. Take wind energy, for example. Smarr noted that the first U.S. offshore wind farm, off the coast of Massachusetts, took 10 years of discussion to be approved—and will be a “huge engineering challenge.” Even if it is fully operational, it will only amount to a drop in the bucket of U.S. energy needs if the country is to be competitive in renewable energy by 2050.

Ultimately, though, the message from the summit was a hopeful one. “Engineering ranges from producing the next version of Microsoft Office or Windows, which is not at all easy…to breaking revolutionary new ground,” Lazowska said. “What you really want to be doing is using prizes to incent the kinds of things that will be important 10 years from now. You don’t necessarily get to the moon by climbing a stepladder.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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