What makes a great “grand challenge”?

Ten years ago DARPA, the US defense research agency, first organized the DARPA Grand Challenge. The challenge was to build a car that could drive 150 miles through the Mohave desert autonomously. The key is the car’s autonomy: No human brain was to steer it and make decisions, it was computers and other technology all the way. The associated technical challenges were manifold: read and interpret the environment correctly, predict behavior of the environment and the car while interacting, plan the route and get to the goal fastest, don’t kill anyone on the way. In its second attempt in 2005, the challenge was first fulfilled and won by the team of Sebastian Thrun of Stanford University.

Since then a series of other “grand challenges” has followed, some of which were reasonable, some of them less so. Here is what I think makes a great grand challenge:

  1. It is relevant for society and a non-expert recognizes the relevance
  2. It is cross-disciplinary, combining many different problems into one
  3. It is a useful application with a clear tangible communicable result
  4. It is measurable and achievable so that we know it when we solved it

I would avoid any “grand challenge” that an expert recognizes but not a layman. A grand challenge needs to stir emotions. Looking at example grand challenges proposed around the Internet, I find many too abstract, too focused on disciplinary issues. My vote goes to “the secure cell phone” as a grand challenge, but there are many others.

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