(Credit: iStock)

A guide to humanity’s greatest challenges

Over the next month, BBC Future Now will explore the biggest issues of our age – informed by a panel of 50 experts.

What’s the biggest challenge facing the world today? In many ways, we stand at a special point in history. The world has never been richer, humans have never lived such long, productive and healthy lives, and we have brought technology to the point where our machines could soon help us solve many of our remaining problems.

We may have things better than ever – but we’ve never faced such world-changing challenges  

On the other hand, we could also be on the brink of disaster. The economies and industries that have given us unprecedented wealth and wellbeing have come at enormous cost to the planet. As a result of our actions, half of all species alive today could disappear over the next century – an irreplaceable network of life that sustains our own existence by sequestering carbon and producing oxygen, among myriad other subtle effects. Global warming could make crowded parts of the world uninhabitable – or at least unable to produce the food that we need.

Other things give cause for concern too. The wealth of the West lifts the global average, but the gap between rich and poor has never been greater – even within single countries. Modern medicine has conquered many diseases – but overuse of antibiotics has created the risk of drug-resistant superbugs that could prove unstoppable. And international travel makes global epidemics more likely.

Finally, computers have brought untold benefit to our lives – making the world tick more smoothly, keeping us connected and helping us solve problems that once seemed intractable. But this success could see them replace human workers in ever greater numbers – especially with the rapid rise of artificially intelligent systems. Their impact will be felt well beyond the workplace too. As AI decision-makers start to play more central roles in industries from banking to healthcare, big events in our lives – securing a loan, getting a medical diagnosis, finding a romantic partner – will be orchestrated more and more by software. Learning how to work with these systems – and ensure that ever smarter machines continue to work in our interest – is still an open issue.

We may have things better than ever – but we’ve never faced such world-changing challenges either. Getting to grips with these is the defining task of our times.

Expert views

That’s why Future Now asked 50 experts – scientists, technologists, business leaders and entrepreneurs – to name what they saw as the biggest challenge facing their area today. The range of different responses demonstrate the richness and complexity of the modern world.

Inspired by these responses, over the next month we will be publishing a series of feature articles and videos that take an in-depth look at the big topics, including energy, artificial intelligence, the future of democracy and more.

This week, we’re featuring an original article from Chelsea Clinton on the challenge of tackling opioid addiction, and why society needs to change its approach to people struggling with a dependency. We’ll also be exploring the pressing problem of ‘fake news’, and asking our experts for their insights on how to ensure trustworthy information reaches people in an age of multiple, competing sources.

Stay tuned. We hope you enjoy the Grand Challenges special to come – and get in touch on Facebook, or Twitter if you’d like to add challenges of your own.

Our panel:

GLOBAL HEALTH

Nicholas Agar, Professor of Ethics at the Victoria University of Wellington

Luke Alphey, Visiting Professor, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford

Elizabeth Bradley, Professor of Grand Strategy, Head of Branford College, Professor of Public Health and Faculty Director of the Yale Global Health Leadership Institute

Chelsea Clinton, Vice Chair, Clinton Foundation

Jennifer Doudna, Professor of Molecular and Cell Biology and Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, co-inventor of CRISPR-Cas9 technology

Joel Garreau, author, journalist, Professor of Law, Culture and Values, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University

Laurie Garrett, Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations

Tim Jinks, Head of Drug Resistant Infections at Wellcome Trust

Anit Mukherjee, policy fellow at the Center for Global Development

Pardis Sabeti, Associate Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and of Immunology and Infectious Diseases, Harvard University

Robert Sparrow, Adjunct Professor, Centre for Human Bioethics, Monash University

Eric Topol, Director of the Scripps Transatlantic Science Institute

Mike Turner, Head of Infection and Immunobiology at the Wellcome Trust

Gavin Yamey, Professor of the Practice of Global Health, Duke University Global Health Institute

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE & TECHNOLOGY

danah boyd, Principal Researcher, Microsoft Research

Missy Cummings, Professor, Humans and Autonomy Lab, Duke University

Kate Darling, Research Specialist, MIT Lab; Fellow, Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society

Ezekiel Emanuel, Vice Provost for Global Initiatives and Chair of the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania

Peter Norvig, Director of Research, Google

Richard Alan Peters, Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering, Vanderbilt University

Bruce Schneier, Chief Technology Officer of Resilient, an IBM company, fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center

Tomotaka Takahashi, founder of Kyoto University’s Robo Garage

Jonathan Zittrain, Professor of International Law at Harvard Law School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Professor of Computer Science at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Director of the Harvard Law School Library, and Faculty Director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society

CITIES AND GLOBAL DEVELOPMENT

Mary Barra, CEO, General Motors

Nootan Bharani, Lead Design Manager, Place Lab, University of Chicago

Larry Burns, former Corporate Vice President of Research and Development for General Motors

Vishaan Chakrabarti, Associate Professor of Practice at Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation

Lucy Jones, Science Advisor for Risk Reduction for the United States Geological Survey

Rochelle Kopp, founder and Managing Principal of Japan Intercultural Counseling

Chris Leinberger, Nonresident Senior Fellow of Metropolitan Policy Program, Brookings Institute

Edward Paice, Director, Africa Research Institute

Nick Reed, Academy Director at the Transport Research Laboratory

Shin-pei Tsay, ‎Executive Director, Gehl Institute

ENERGY

Homi Kharas, Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of Brookings Institute’s Global Program

Carey King, Assistant Director, University of Texas at Austin Energy Institute

Vijay Padmanabhan, Asian Development Bank, Technical Advisor (Urban)

William Ryerson, founder and President, the Population Institute and Population Media Center

Jim Watson, Director of the UK Energy Research Centre

FUTURE OF THE INTERNET / DEMOCRACY

Peter Barron, VP Communications, EMEA, Google

Rohit Chandra, VP Engineering, Yahoo

Eddie Copeland, Director of Government Innovation at Nesta

Nonny de la Peña, virtual reality journalist and CEO of Emblematic Group

Ben Fletcher, Senior Software Engineer at IBM Watson Research

Kevin Kelly, founding Executive Editor of Wired Magazine

Stephan Lewandowsky, psychologist at University of Bristol

Alexios Mantzarlis, Chair of the International Fact Checking Network

Will Moy, Director of Full Fact, an independent fact checking organisation based in the UK

Paul Resnick, Professor of Information at the University of Michigan

Victoria Rubin, Director of the Language and Information Technology Research lab at Western University, Ontario, Canada

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation, Oxford Internet Institute

Let us know the “grand challenge” that matters to you on Facebook, or on Twitter.

If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.