The 7 ‘Grand Challenges` Facing IT

By Chris Gonsalves  |  Posted 2008-04-09

Imagine how well-positioned your IT would be if you had a 25-year jump on the competition.

Well, to hear Gartner analysts tell it, you have that sort of window into the future right now. The innovations that will unfold over the next quarter century are all around you─buried in research papers, patent applications and production prototypes. Separating the news from the noise, however, is what Gartner calls an “IT Grand Challenge,” a way to figure out which advances have the potential for broad economic, scientific or social benefit.

“IT leaders should always be looking ahead for the emerging technologies that will have a dramatic impact on their business, and information on many of these future innovations isalready in some public domain,” Gartner Vice President and Fellow Ken McGee told attendees at the Gartner Emerging Trends Symposium/ITxpo 2008 in Las Vegas this week.

“CIOs should identify which Gartner IT Grand Challenges will be most meaningful for their enterprise,” McGee said. “There are technologies on the horizon that will completely transform your business.”

*If the most immediate thing you need to worry about is IT cost-cutting, Gartner published advice with 25 ways to cut IT costs at the 2008 Symposium/ITxpo.

Here is Gartner’s list of IT Grand Challenges.

1. Never having to manually recharge devices.
With so many portable computers, phones and PDAs running on batteries, the ability to remotely charge or power these devices would be an instant hit. Despite a century’s worth of effort since the invention of the Tesla coil, little progress had been made until last year, when researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology began experimenting with the transfer of nonradiative power. It’s worth noting, even if commercial application of wireless powering remains a long way off.

2. Parallel programming.
Instead of juicing single-core processors to do more serial work, parallel computing takes advantage of multi-core processors and advanced programming to speed such things as simulations, modeling, entertainment and massive data mining. The technology and its underlying architecture still needs to be refined to effectively break up processes into specific subprocesses to determine which tasks can and should be handled simultaneously.

3. Nontactile, natural computing interfaces.
Interacting with computers with no mechanical interface has long been an engineering dream. Work is under way to refine gesture detection and improve real-time processing. A truly natural interface would also require natural language processing, including speech synthesis, speech recognition, natural language understanding, natural language generation, machine translation and translation from one language to another.

4. Automated speech translation.
Once the natural language processing hurdles are cleared, there’s still the matter of translation and output in a language humans can understand. Some rudimentary systems have already been created to accomplish basic speech translation, such as one- and two-way translations.
5. Persistent, reliable long-term storage.
Current technologies are hard-pressed to perfectly preserve Francine Berman’s 2006 estimate of 161 exabytes (or 161 quintillion bytes) of digital information on digital media for more than 20 years. The barriers to long-term archiving (in excess of 100 years) that must be overcome include format, hardware, software, metadata and information retrieval, to name a few.
6. Increase programmer productivity a hundredfold.
As demand for software development increases, and the number of students pursuing software engineering and computer science degrees declines, meeting future demands will require increasing the output and productivity of each programmer. While tools that enhance productivity continue to capture attention, the best solution may lie in effectively and efficiently exploiting reusable code. But many challenges exist there as well, including minimizing the time required to find the perfect module and avoiding the need to modify reusable software.

7. Identifying the financial consequences of IT investing.
One of the toughest challenges facing IT leaders is finding ways to convey the business value of IT in terms business executives understand. Gartner suggests a new discipline called “management accounting” to give business advice and recommendations that would quantify the consequences of a particular IT deployment. Unlike financial accounting measurements, which are standard across public companies, the particular management accounting metrics could be different for each company.

This Grand Challenge would be considered conquered when a request for an IT project was argued with the following certainty: “If you invest in our IT proposal, you will see an additional 3 cents [in] earnings per share directly attributable to this project by the third quarter of next year.”