The Future of Engineering

IEEE Spectrum Magazine, Sept. 2002

 What 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? 

When 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.

 How 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.

 Looking 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.

 That 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.

 Engineering 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.

 I 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.

 I 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.”

 If we want to soar with the eagles, then, like Icarus, we too could chase the sun.

 Robert W. Lucky