A Nanotechnology-Inspired Grand Challenge for Future Computing


Frequently Asked Programmatic Questions

What is a “Nanotechnology-Inspired Grand Challenge”?

Why is OSTP developing nanotechnology-inspired grand challenges?

Is there a prize associated with this challenge?

Is this challenge a new national initiative? What is the relationship between this challenge and the different national initiatives mentioned in the announcement (NNI, NSCI, BRAIN)?

Will the government be announcing new funding to support this challenge?

 

Frequently Asked Technical Questions

Is this challenge about using nanotechnology to build a brain?

Is this challenge to develop neuromorphic computing?

Will this challenge extend “Moore’s Law”?

 

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Frequently Asked Programmatic Questions

What is a “Nanotechnology-Inspired Grand Challenge”?

Grand challenges are an element of the President’s Strategy for American Innovation that help catalyze breakthroughs needed to advance national priorities. A Nanotechnology-Inspired Grand Challenge should be an ambitious but achievable goal that harnesses nanoscience, nanotechnology, and innovation to solve important national or global problems and has the potential to capture the public’s imagination. The challenge should inspire different sectors to invest resources to achieve the ambitious goal and stimulate a network of activities that will drive scientific ideas towards commercial products while catalyzing new discoveries.

An effective grand challenge has the following characteristics (see White House 21st Century Grand Challenges):

  • A measurable end-point that is highly ambitious but achievable.
  • Requires advances in fundamental scientific knowledge, tools, and infrastructure for successful completion.
  • Has clear intermediate milestones (measurable and valuable in their own right) that will be achieved en route to the final goals.
  • Drives the need for collaboration between multiple disciplines, some of which do not normally interact, causing multiple organizations to come together to collaborate and to share resources and information to solve the challenge.
  • Spans efforts from discovery and fundamental science to engineering demonstration and commercialization; i.e., catalyzes the transition of technologies from laboratory to market.
  • Is too big to be undertaken by one or even a few organizations.
  • Is exciting enough to motivate decision makers to provide funding and resources and multiple organizations to collaborate, share resources, and information to solve the challenge.
  • Captures the imagination of the public, thereby facilitating strong support for the resources required to achieve the goals.

Although nanoscale science and technology is a broadly enabling discipline, not every worthwhile grand challenge is likely to be solved using nanotechnology. A grand challenge is nanotechnology-inspired where the known benefits of nanoscale science and technology, including the unique properties of engineered nanomaterials, are likely to play an enabling role in the solution.

 

Why is OSTP developing nanotechnology-inspired grand challenges?

Under the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), scientists, engineers, and educators are building a future in which the ability to understand and control matter at the nanoscale leads to a revolution in technology and industry. The collective effort of this community to achieve the vision of the NNI has greatly accelerated the discovery, development, and deployment of nanotechnology to address broad national needs.

In an October 2014 assessment of the NNI, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) recommended that agencies engage research, development, and industrial stakeholders in the identification and selection of grand challenges in order to focus and amplify the impact of Federal nanotechnology activities.  In June 2015, OSTP, working with the Federal agencies that participate in the NNI, issued a Request for Information seeking suggestions from the public for nanotechnology-inspired grand challenges.  After considering over 100 responses, OSTP is excited to announce this first grand challenge—one that addresses three Administration priorities: the National Nanotechnology Initiative, the National Strategic Computing Initiative (NSCI), and the BRAIN initiative.

 

Is there a prize associated with this challenge?

No, this is not a prize challenge.  This is a grand challenge to reach an “ambitious but achievable goal that harnesses nanoscience, nanotechnology, and innovation to solve important national or global problems and has the potential to capture the public’s imagination”.  (See White House 21st Century Grand Challenges.)  However, in order to develop the transformational computing capabilities envisioned by this challenge, Federal agencies and non-governmental organizations may decide to offer incentive prizes to help achieve intermediate milestones on the way to the goal.  To learn more about Federally sponsored prize challenges, visit www.challenge.gov.

 

Is this challenge a new national initiative? What is the relationship between this challenge and the different national initiatives mentioned in the announcement (NNI, NSCI, BRAIN)?

This challenge is being announced as a nanotechnology-inspired grand challenge under the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) based on the expectations that the benefits of nanoscale science and technology, including the unique properties of engineered nanomaterials, are likely to play an enabling role in the solution.  The needed nanotechnology innovations will have to be developed in close coordination with new computer architectures, and will likely be informed by our growing understanding of the brain, so this challenge will therefor require a coordinated effort between the NNI, the National Strategic Computing Initiative (NSCI), and the BRAIN Initiative.

 

Will the government be announcing new funding to support this challenge?

Not at this time.  Significant Federal resources are already available through programs associated with the National Nanotechnology Initiative, the National Strategic Computing Initiative, and the BRAIN Initiative.  Before addition resources can be focused on achieving this challenge, the scientific and engineering community must chart the most promising path forward.  For example, it is not yet clear what would be potential nanotechnology solutions to the challenge and what intermediate steps and activities are necessary to develop those solutions, or what potential metrics and milestones could be used to measure intermediate progress towards solving the challenge.  Over the coming months, Federal agencies, professional societies, industry groups, and non-profit organizations will be coming together in workshops and other forums to help answer these questions.  As the associated R&D priorities are determined, it is likely that Federal and non-Federal funding opportunities will be announced accordingly.

 

Frequently Asked Technical Questions

Is this challenge about using nanotechnology to build a brain?

This challenge is not about using nanotechnology to build or replicate a brain, but rather to create computers capable of brain-like sensing and problem solving abilities, fault-tolerance, and power efficiency.  The ultimate goal is a new architecture for both hardware and software that enables computers to efficiently interpret images and speech, proactively spot patterns and anomalies in data, learn from the data as it is received, and solve unfamiliar problems using what has been learned.  Many of these approaches will require new kinds of nanoscale devices and materials integrated into three-dimensional systems.  While the nanotechnology and related computer science innovations may very well be informed and inspired by our growing understanding of the brain, replicating the complex anatomical structure and biological functions of a human brain is not the goal.

 

Is this challenge to develop neuromorphic computing?

An important characteristic of a grand challenge is that it does not define the path(s) to a solution.  Much of the progress developing novel, low power methods of sensing and computation utilize approaches that are inspired by neuro-biological architectures present in the nervous system.  Some of the biological attributes that such methods aim to copy include fault-tolerance, power efficiency, and plasticity (how synaptic connections change in response to experience).  Within these methods one will find multiple schemes, including those based on transistors, analog devices, memristors, and magneto-electronics.  Moreover, a neuromorphic approach may not prove to provide the best solution to this challenge—recall that motorcycles do not gallop like horses and the planes we fly in do not flap feathered wings.  By bringing together the nanotechnology, computer science, and neuroscience communities it is possible entirely new, disruptive solutions may arise.

 

Will this challenge extend “Moore’s Law”?

Moore’s Law is one of multiple technological and economic trends that characterize the remarkable advances over the past 50 years in conventional digital computers—those based on the Von Neumann architecture as implemented with transistor-based processors.  While it continues to be a national priority to advance conventional computing, many experts predict that fundamental physical limitations will impede the ability of transistor technology to ever match the abilities of the human brain both in its sensing and problem solving abilities and low power consumption.  This challenge will require the nanotechnology and computer science communities to explore entirely new approaches to building and programming computers in order to achieve these twin characteristics.  Because some of requirements, such as very low power operation, are also important to improving current technology, although not the focus, it is possible that R&D aimed at this challenge will also contribute to advances in conventional computing (and vice-versa).

 

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