Grand challenges for engineering in the next 100 years

On Feb 15 the voting for the ‘Grand Challenges For Engineering in the next 100 years‘ is going to start. This is the contribution I wrote for the discussion there:

Atomic scale assembly, and programmable matter… A better understanding of quantum mechanics, and the software capable of exploiting it will give us unparalleled power over the structure and function of the objects we build.

As we move to leverage our increasing understanding of nature’s laws on the atomic scale, and the computational power enabling more and more powerful software programs designing these atomic assemblies, we will be able to construct–actually most of the time enable to self-construct–objects on a level of effectiveness and flexibility orders of magnitude higher than today.

Since humans started manipulating stone, and mud, to shape, and build objects, and tools to build better, more functional objects, the refinement of these activities might have led us to believe that we have gotten fundamentally better, while actually a stone age clay oven and Intel’s latest chip fabrication plants are based on the same principles. This macro-level approach is not sufficient anymore to achieve our goals, and simultaneously share the world’s resources in a more equitable manner among all the peoples needing them.

Rather than assuming quantum behavior as a nuisance to shield from, we have to accept it as an intrinsic and powerful element of reality, and learn to exploit it in our designs. Once we do that, everything in engineering is going to change radically: from design, to construction, to building, to project management.

Since the consequences of this radical approach are going to be vast, and complex to anticipate, it will be crucial to analyze their impact not only from the point of view of engineering itself. We will have to be alert to the possible social consequences, and inform the political decisions that will unavoidably regulate what are permitted or desirable actions through sound scientific analysis.