Tag Archives: grand challenges

Technological change is not additive; it is ecological

I spend a lot of my time thinking about the future in terms of engineering grand challenges, engineering education, and the impact that engineering can have on the world. I recently came across a 25+ year old quote about technological change that caught my attention.

“In the year 1500, after the printing press was invented, you did not have old Europe plus the printing press. You had a different Europe. After television, America was not America plus television. Television gave a new coloration to every political campaign, to every home, to every school, to every church, to every industry, and so on.

That is why we must be cautious about technological innovation. The consequences of technological change are always vast, often unpredictable and largely irreversible.”

Neil Postman, lecture at the Arts Center in Denver Colorado in 1997 entitled “Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change

Technological change being ecological is one of five ideas that Neil Postman outlined in his lecture. All five ideas are:

  1. We always pay a price for technology.
  2. There are always winners and losers.
  3. The technology has a philosophy (epistemological, political or social prejudice). Sometimes this bias is to our advantage, and sometimes not.
  4. Technological change is not additive; it is ecological.
  5. Technology tends to control more of our lives than is good for us.

The entire lecture is interesting and relevant to the various forms of technological change we have experienced since he delivered the lecture in 1997. His lecture highlights the tremendous scope of impact that enablers of technological change have on our way of living.

Technological change is often at the hands of engineers. Recognizing this motivates engineering education to empower engineering students to be able to understand and influence the ecological changes that result from technological change for the better. This lecture will guide my thinking in this area in the future.

What do you think? Are these five ideas regarding technological change still true? How would you modify or add to the list?

engineering achievements of the 20th century

Yesterday, I blogged about NAE grand challenges and how operations research can contribute to those grand challenges. You may find the list of 20th century engineering achievements interesting. The NAE’s full list of engineering achievements with an explanation for each item, can be found at www.greatachievements.org. Here is the brief list courtesy of the NAE publication The Bridge. The list is ordered according to importance.

  1. Electrification-Vast networks of electricity provide power for the developed world.
  2. Automobile-Revolutionary manufacturing practices made cars more reliable and affordable, and the automobile became the world’s major mode of transportation.
  3. Airplane-Flying made the world accessible, spurring globalization on a grand scale.
  4. Water Supply and Distribution-Engineered systems prevent the spread of disease, increasing life expectancy.
  5. Electronics-First with vacuum tubes and later with transistors, electronic circuits underlie nearly all modern technologies.
  6. Radio and Television-These two devices dramatically changed the way the world receives information and entertainment.
  7. Agricultural Mechanization-Numerous agricultural innovations led to a vastly larger, safer, and less costly food supply.
  8. Computers-Computers are now at the heart of countless operations and systems that impact our lives.
  9. Telephone-The telephone changed the way the world communicates personally and in business.
  10. Air Conditioning and Refrigeration-Beyond providing convenience, these innovations extend the shelf-life of food and medicines, protect electronics, and play an important role in health care delivery.
  11. Highways-44,000 miles of U.S. highways enable personal travel and the wide distribution of goods.
  12. Spacecraft-Going to outer space vastly expanded humanity’s horizons and resulted in the development of more than 60,000 new products on Earth.
  13. Internet-The Internet provides a global information and communications system of unparalleled access.
  14. Imaging-Numerous imaging tools and technologies have revolutionized medical diagnostics.
  15. Household Appliances-These devices have eliminated many strenuous, laborious tasks, especially for women.
  16. Health Technologies-From artificial implants to the mass production of antibiotics, these technologies have led to vast health improvements.
  17. Petroleum and Petrochemical Technologies-These technologies provided the fuel that energized the twentieth century.
  18. Laser and Fiber Optics-Their applications are wide and varied, including almost simultaneous worldwide communications, noninvasive surgery, and point-of-sale scanners.
  19. Nuclear Technologies-From splitting the atom came a new source of electric power.
  20. High-performance Materials-They are lighter, stronger, and more adaptable than ever before.

I find it interesting that OR hasn’t obviously contributed to these 20th century achievements. The 20th century achievements celebrate making things, not improved systems. Our world is becoming increasingly more complex and interconnected – and this sometimes makes us more vulnerable and fragile. This is reflected in the list of 21st century challenges. We need operations research to improve connections, ensure efficiency, and introduce resilience. As highlighted in the NSF-sponsored report in yesterday’s post, OR will clearly make important contributions to 21st century challenges.

Last semester I team-taught a course to freshman about engineering grand challenges. The idea was to talk about a theme (mine was Mega-cities) that cuts across all engineering disciplines to help students pick a major. It was interesting to talk about how during their careers, they will solve problems that we don’t know that exist. We talked about the 20th century achievements as a springboard for talking about what awaits us in the 21 century.

I sometimes tell my students that the world runs on eighth grade math – many important systems are shockingly simplistic and there is plenty of room to apply operations research to make things work better. This isn’t universally true, many systems are becoming more complex and interconnected, and eighth grade math no longer cuts it. Higher education and graduate education is needed just to keep up.

The Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) published a list of the top 10 algorithms in the 20th century [Link] in chronological order. The simplex algorithm is on the list (obviously!), despite George Dantzig being teased for assuming the world is linear.

  1. the Monte Carlo method or Metropolis algorithm, devised by John von Neumann, Stanislaw Ulam, and Nicholas Metropolis;
  2. the simplex method of linear programming, developed by George Dantzig;
  3. the Krylov Subspace Iteration method, developed by Magnus Hestenes, Eduard Stiefel, and Cornelius Lanczos;
  4. the Householder matrix decomposition, developed by Alston Householder;
  5. the Fortran compiler, developed by a team lead by John Backus;
  6. the QR algorithm for eigenvalue calculation, developed by J Francis;
  7. the Quicksort algorithm, developed by Anthony Hoare;
  8. the Fast Fourier Transform, developed by James Cooley and John Tukey;
  9. the Integer Relation Detection Algorithm, developed by Helaman Ferguson and Rodney Forcade; (given N real values XI, is there a nontrivial set of integer coefficients AI so that sum ( 1 <= I <= N ) AI * XI = 0?
  10. the fast Multipole algorithm, developed by Leslie Greengard and Vladimir Rokhlin; (to calculate gravitational forces in an N-body problem normally requires N^2 calculations. The fast multipole method uses order N calculations, by approximating the effects of groups of distant particles using multipole expansions)

What is your favorite 20th century OR contribution? What is your favorite anecdote about a complex system relying on eighth grade math?


engineering grand challenges that operations research can help solve

In May, the report Operations Research – A Catalyst for Engineering Grand Challenges was released to the National Science Foundation [grant info here]. The report outlines operations research grand challenges for the next century, and they reflect the National Academy of Engineering’s list of grand challenges [Link]. This committee worked on a project funded by the NSF, and it was a great idea for highlighting the importance of operations research in relation to other STEM fields with regard to solving important societal problems as well as for prioritizing directions for our field.  The report was written by a committee composed by:

  • Suvrajeet Sen, Chair, University of Southern California
  • Cynthia Barnhart, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • John R. Birge, University of Chicago
  • E. Andrew Boyd, PROS
  • Michael C. Fu, University of Maryland
  • Dorit S. Hochbaum, University of California -Berkeley
  • David P. Morton, University of Texas-Austin
  • George L. Nemhauser, Georgia Institute of Technology
  • Barry L. Nelson, Northwestern University
  • Warren B. Powell, Princeton University
  • Christine A. Shoemaker, Cornell University
  • David D. Yao, Columbia University
  • Stefanos A. Zenios, Stanford University

Executive summary. The growth and success of Operations Research (OR) depends on our ability to transcend disciplinary boundaries and permeate the practices of other disciplines using ideas, tools, and experience of the OR community. This report is intended to continue the tradition of transcending disciplinary boundaries by using the U.S. National Academy of Engineering’s (NAE) Engineering Grand Challenges as a source of inspiration for the OR community. Our goal is to view these challenges as an opportunity for the OR community to play the role of a catalyst – utilizing OR to facilitate some pressing technological challenges facing humanity today.

A panel of thought-leaders convened by the NAE (and facilitated by NSF) unveiled its vision of the Engineering Grand Challenges in 2008. Over the past several years, this report has invited (and received) feedback from international leaders and professional organizations, including the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS). As input from the OR community, several past Presidents of INFORMS prepared a white paper, an abbreviated version of which appeared as the President’s Column in OR/MS Today (April 2008). As predicted, the OR community has been active in many of the thematic areas of the NAE Grand Challenges via publications in topical research areas of our flagship journals, joint major conferences, and other collaborative efforts. The question of whether there are ways to dovetail OR with these challenges is not the issue. Of importance is whether there is a need to introduce greater structure for research and exchange between domain experts in core areas of the engineering Grand Challenges and the OR community.

In order to accelerate the growth, this report recommends a two-pronged approach: (1) An NSF announcement of “Grand Challenge Analytics” as a major EFRI topic, and (2) an NSF sponsored institute for “Multidisciplinary OR and Engineering” which will be dedicated to coalescing a general-purpose theory, as well as building a community to support “Grand Challenge Analytics”. Together, these initiatives are likely to unleash a vast array of methodologies onto the engineering Grand Challenges of today. Such an effort could be likened to the manner in which the interface between OR and computer/communications science/engineering has propelled the development of the Internet. Similarly, the long-standing exchanges between the INFORMS and Economics communities has produced deep results, many of which have been honored by the Nobel Prize in Economics. Drawing upon such successes, we propose a new era in which the OR community reaches out to domains that are more directly connected to the NAE Grand Challenges. This more structured approach, driven by NSF sponsorship of research and thematic exchanges (workshops), will result in well-defined outcomes, leading to a strong foundation for the NAE Grand Challenges.

Challenges areas from the report:

  1. OR: A General-Purpose Theory of Analytics
    “The time has come to engage both domain experts as well as OR experts, so that policies/decisions become an integral part of analysis, not an afterthought.”
  2. OR for sustainability
    “The Earth is a planet of finite resources, and its growing population currently consumes them at a rate that cannot be sustained. Utilizing resources (like fusion, wind, and solar power), preserving the integrity of our environment, and providing access to potable water are the first few steps to securing an environmentally sound and energy-efficient future for all of mankind.”
  3. OR for security
    “As our interconnected systems grow in complexity, having a trusted operational model is even more essential for assessing system vulnerabilities and, in turn, addressing the challenge of how to secure that system.”
  4. OR for human health.
    Also see my last blog post on healthcare challenges – I’m glad the White House and the OR community agree with this one!
    “One of the most significant problems facing the health care system is keeping costs under control while providing high levels of service. Doing so requires a careful analysis of costs and benefits, but as Kaplan and Porter (2011) argue, “The biggest problem with health care is that we’re measuring the wrong things the wrong way.” “
  5. OR for Joy of Living
    “For example, reducing traffic congestion in urban areas, improving response times of first-responders, designing smart, energy efficient homes, and others raise many novel OR questions. One such example is an application related to predicting movie recommendations associated with the so-called “Netflix Prize” problem. Other “joys of life,” such as sports, have also seen many applications of analytics; in addition to the well publicized baseball movie “Moneyball,” there is Major League Baseball scheduling which is done routinely using OR models. In this sense, OR casts such a wide net in the “Joy of Living” area, that the following subsections (pertaining only to the NAE Grand Challenges) explicitly discuss only a small subset of applications for “Joy of Living.” “

Report Recommended Actions

Action 1. NSF should announce an EFRI (Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation) topic for “Grand Challenge Analytics”. These proposals should not only be judged according to the impact on a Grand Challenge problem, but also on the novel methodology that will be developed as a result of the research. EFRI is a well-established program within NSF, and given the ground work of this report, we believe that NSF program officers will find it relatively straightforward to craft a RFP on this topic.

Action 2. Concurrently with Action 1, we recommend the formation of an Institute which will invite both EFRI-funded researchers as well as others from the field to participate in workshops which will explore common themes resulting from “Grand Challenge Analytics” projects. These workshops will not only help cross-fertilization between projects, but also help develop a general-purpose theory of analytics.

My Recommend Actions

Submit your student paper to the INFORMS Doing Good with Good OR student paper competition next year

Submit your paper to the INFORMS Section of Public Programs, Services, and Needs Best Paper Competition (due on June 15!)


What do you think of the OR grand challenges?