The 21st Century is about Engineering, Systems and Society

author: A. Richard Newton, College of Engineering, University of California
published: July 26, 2010,   recorded: October 2005,   views: 3137
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What’s “big, complex and hairy,” and requires the efforts of an impassioned, interdisciplinary team to tackle? The answer, says A. Richard Newton, is the “one-off problem” – the kind of sprawling social, scientific and engineering puzzle that increasingly challenges contemporary society. Think about the conundrum of affordable healthcare, or emergency preparedness. How do you address such enormous issues? Newton’s answer is CITRIS, the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society. This partnership among academia, government and industry specializes in attacking problems critical to the quality of life, and whose solutions require “societal-scale information systems.” Current CITRIS research includes designing information technology for the energy-deprived developing world. This demands, says Newton, a “complete rethinking of the architecture of information and communication systems.” Work so far points toward wireless technologies in remote villages, with communication antennas flying atop balloons anchored by cables. And on the home front: Newton points out that one-third of the total national outlay on healthcare derives from lab tests -- about 500 billion dollars a year. Could we reduce the tab by coming up with new kinds of testing that don’t require a visit to the office, and whose results could be more efficiently communicated to healthcare providers, Newton wonders. Cracking any of these problems requires an understanding of information systems, and benefits enormously from “passionate individuals” pulling together around a shared vision – “like the moon shot.”

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