will engineering be like in the future? Every
now and then I think about how much it has changed over the course of my own
career. If changes of a similar
magnitude happen in the coming decades, what will the profession be like for
today’s college students?
I studied engineering in college, I had little idea of what I was getting into.
I suppose in retrospect that I was too busy taking courses and enjoying
college life to think about what real engineers did.
Maybe in the back of my mind I saw Thomas Edison sitting at his desk in a
big musty laboratory, surrounded by elaborate equipment as he wrote in his
notebook of progress towards the great inventions that would change the way
people lived. It’s hard to
remember now, but maybe that’s what I signed up for when I selected
engineering as a career.
different engineering is practiced now than any vision that could be
extrapolated from that dream of Edison! I
wonder what dreams today’s engineering students have, and how those dreams
will be transfigured by the reality of the future.
I worry too about how those inevitable changes will affect the
attractiveness of engineering as a profession.
back on my naïve expectations, I ask myself: did it turn out better than I had
envisioned? The answer is clearly
yes. The information and computer
power at my fingertips in my office and home are lightyears beyond that dream of
Edison. Today we soar on the wings
of computers and networking to heights where the minutia of engineering detail
lies indistinguishable on the ground far below. Sometimes I think of Archimedes’ lever, “Give me a place
to stand on, and I can move the earth."
We’ve been given the lever and the place to stand upon, and I feel that
the earth is ours to move.
feeling of empowerment is exhilarating. My
worry is the price that we have paid for soaring so far above the landscape.
In our profession there is a growing distancing from reality.
It is like the profound feeling of disconnection I have when I stare out
the window of an airplane. Those
aren’t real houses down there, I think, and I’m not really sitting in an
aluminum tube high in the sky with no visible means of support.
Why does the pilot tell me that the outside temperature is minus 50
degrees Celsius? This has no
meaning to me, because the outside world is merely a diorama painted on my
window. But as soon as these
troubling thoughts intrude themselves, the flight attendant is telling me to
lower my window shade so that I can better see the movie, substituting one form
of unreality for another.
today feels like that window seat on the airplane. Those can’t be real transistors and wires down there, can
they? Watching the simulations on
my computer monitor is like watching the movie on the airplane – an unreality
wrapped in another unreality. I
feel that I have lost touch with Edison’s world of electricity – a world of
black Bakelite meters, whirring motors, acrid chemical smells, and heated
conductors. I miss Heathkits and
the smell of molten solder and burning insulation -- the sensual aspects of
engineering that have been replaced for many of us by the antiseptic,
ubiquitous, and impersonal CRTs.
have a deeper worry that math itself is slipping away into the wispy clouds of
nebulous software that surround us. I
walk down the aisles of laboratories, and I see engineers staring vacantly into
monitors, their desks piled unusably high with anachronistic paper detritus.
Is anyone doing math by hand any longer, I wonder?
Do they miss the cerebral nourishment of solving equations?
Perhaps math in the future will be the exclusive province of a cult of
priests that embed its capability into shrink-wrapped, encrypted software.
can’t believe that twenty years from now engineers will still stare into
displays, run CAD tools, and archive their results in PowerPoint.
But what will they do? My
deepest fear is that the reality gap becomes so great that the best-selling
software is called “Engineer-in-a-Box.”
we want to soar with the eagles, then, like Icarus, we too could chase the sun.