There are two technologies which are 'game changers' with respect to human civilization:
1. fusion as applied to space-lift technology
2. artificial (machine) awareness
I have spoken to engineering students and faculty about both. I typically get one of two reactions:
1. smug indifference
2. “we're not ready” (as a civilization/technologically)
The problem with both attitudes is that neither challenge can appropriately addressed when all we do is 'shoot people down' with indifference, mockery, or “it can't be done”; the problems will never be solved with either attitude.
If there's ONE thing I believe in, it's human ingenuity. When we apply ourselves faithfully and diligently (such as with Edison or Faraday), 'miracles' can happen (the incandescent light bulb and understanding properties of electromagnetism). Those progresses in science and technology did not happen because of indifference or blanket negative statements; they happened because each of those human beings, deep down, believed it could be done! And so I believe within my lifetime, we can develop reliable and safe fusion lift-technology – and – (benevolent) artificial awareness.
Other than researcher indifference / lack of faith in human ingenuity, the main issue with AA (artificial awareness) is modeling. Philosophers, psychologists, neurologists,.. all have different models of 'mind' and so to attempt to be comprehensive in modeling is a recipe for failure from the get-go. I believe the only viable approach (currently available) is the systems approach. This article will not rehash core notions of that; the interested reader can find plenty of resources surveying it. Over the years, this author has attacked the problem of 'modeling mind' with the systems approach and come up with some interesting ideas.. The curious reader can find relevant articles here:
Fusion as applied to lift-technology is a 'bit' different than modeling mind. Here I feel it is lack of vision and faith in human ingenuity which are the primary culprits. Anybody with any awareness about fusion technology will instantly think of ITER and the grande (in progress) complex associated with that. Again, curious readers are encouraged pursue topics independently. Mind-set and perspectives are crucial to this endeavor. If we lock ourselves into an ITER mode of modeling/thinking, we'll never solve the problem. It's not just a matter of scale; appropriate technology must be developed; again the systems approach is called into action.
The ONLY way to solve either problem is to get students thinking about them NOW. (Notice I did not use the word researcher/faculty.) With enough students seriously thinking about both problems, eventually a Faraday or Edison will appear and change the world .. But remember, these game-changing events will not happen by themselves, they will not happen in a cynical atmosphere of indifference or derision, nor out of neglect; they will only happen when we believe in ourselves as a species in terms of innovation, nurture and cultivate the next Faraday or Edison. They most certainly won't happen if all we do is debate about the nature of 'mind' or shoot-down every idea about portable fusion.
The future won't wait for us; if it's not Americans, I can think of at least one Asian country with the resources and inclination to solve either or both problems. Do Americans really want to pass the torch of technological innovation to our competitors in Asia? ..Only a few decades ago, it was a matter of national pride to develop space-lift technology; what happened to that spirit?