In This Issue
Engineering Crossroads
March 1, 1998 Volume 28 Issue 1
The Bridge, Volume 28, Number 1 - Spring 1998

Engineering and the Crossroads of Our Species

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Author: George Bugliarello

If engineering is to be a strong interlocutor in the dialogue about the future, it needs to become more integrated with science, society, and humanistic concerns.

When, some 4 million years ago, we emerged or were chased from the forest, becoming a species distinct from our simian cousins, we were able, anthropologists believe, to seek a new environment because of the evolutionary development of our knees. Over time, we humans came to walk efficiently upright for much longer distances than our cousins in the forest. There may have also been other developments that helped us evolve, developments that occurred outside of our bodies, such as the fashioning of a pouch to carry food across the wide spaces that separated the forests, which were still our natural habitat. Whether it occurred at that time or not, that pouch, thought by some to be the origin of clothing, was an artifact, or machine. By machine, I mean something created by an organism to complement and expand its biological capability.

One cannot pinpoint exactly when in the history of life the ability to create machines emerged. We know, of course, that humans were not the first to innovate in this way. Consider the nests of birds or the minute sand grains that some amoebas use to cover themselves for protection. While machines are quite widespread in nature, it is only with humans that they have acquired the complexity, sophistication, and pervasiveness that so greatly affects our lives and our environment.

Until 40,000 years ago, the development of machines occurred as we ourselves were evolving as a species. In the last 40,000 years - the blink of an eye in geological time - the development of machines has occurred at an accelerating speed. In the last 400 years, and particularly in the last 100, machine creation and use have progressed at such a dizzying pace that society has had difficulty adapting. The discipline that made possible this exponentially rapid development of machines is what eventually came to be called engineering.

The builders of the pyramids, China's Great Wall, the Roman aqueducts, and the great mechanical devices of the Renaissance were without question superb engineers. But modern engineers have had the great advantage of being able to base their designs on scientific knowledge, knowledge that began to accumulate in the seventeenth century with the mechanics of Galileo and Newton. Later, discoveries in thermodynamics, electricity, magnetism, chemistry, and particle physics provided further insights and opportunity to engineers.

It would be wrong to assume, however, as many do, that the flow of knowledge has been unidirectional, from science to engineering, and that engineering is just applied science. The fact is that engineering, although more and more closely connected with science, has often preceded it. The clock inspired planetary theories; cannons were invented before ballistics; Marconi transmitted radio signals across the Atlantic in spite of the scientific tenet of the time that radio waves could not follow the curvature of the Earth. Furthermore, science today is inextricably dependent on machines - on instruments, computers, spacecraft - just as machines are on science.

The interdependence of engineering and science should not obfuscate the fundamental difference between the two, a difference often not clearly perceived by either scientists or engineers, let alone by the general public. Science is about understanding nature and about the ways in which we can be assured that our understandings are valid. Engineering, in a broad sense, is about modifying nature. The construction of a bridge or a house, the cultivation of plants, the modification of DNA, even the creation of an organization, such as a corporation or a university, are all acts of creation that modify nature. They are acts of engineering, even if commonly we use the term in a much narrower context.

Engineering Virtually Boundless
So, science is about trying to learn the whys of the physical universe and of life in it. Engineering is about finding ways to modify that universe and that life in order to extend our biological reach, the quality of our lives, and the niches in which we can survive. Thus, engineering is about how - how to go faster or slower, higher or deeper, how to fight disease, how to supply water and food and shelter, how to defend ourselves from aggression, how to better communicate with each other, how to develop social synergies, how to expand our memory, our senses, or our muscles. And, like the universe scientists try to comprehend, engineering is virtually boundless.

But science and engineering by themselves are not enough to enhance our biological capabilities. It is not enough to pursue the whys of nature or to find how we can modify nature. We must also be able to decide what we should do. That is, we need to decide how far and in what directions society should go in pursuit of science and engineering, rather than be helplessly tossed about by waves of technological or social determinism. This is a humanistic and ethical question. Unfortunately, today we are pursuing it largely in isolation from the other two.

Science and engineering have brought our species to a new crossroads, one of infinite options. We reached other major crossroads when we learned to master fire and, much later, when we invented agriculture and cities, when we learned to print, when we learned to fly and to communicate across the globe, and when we learned to harness new energy sources. Still other crossroads were in the social domain, like the development of monotheistic religions, the Athenian invention of democracy, the creation of the corporation, or the establishment of the concepts of liberty and human dignity by the American and French Revolutions.

Each of these crossroads changed irrevocably the direction and nature of society. Firearms led to the disappearance of feudal society. The school of Prince Henry the Navigator at Sagres in Portugal opened the way to global exploration, trade, and conquests. The creation of the corporation made it possible to accumulate resources and spread risks. The eighteenth-century revolutions established the bedrock on which the modern democratic state is founded.

Modern Crossroads
In this century, the automobile changed the nature of cities and created suburbs, the radio in the kitchen of American homes gave women political consciousness, and audio tapes helped propel the revolution of the Ayatollah Khomeini. What defines today's crossroads, making it dramatically different from all those that preceded it, is that it opens up a new phase in the trajectory of our species, a phase in which bio-socio-machine evolution replaces natural selection as the determining factor in our future. This dramatic new phase is the result of the concurrent impact of four major developments.

The first is the ability to manipulate biological organisms at the most fundamental level - nucleic acids and genes - and thus to no longer accept the confines of our own biology.

The second is the mastery of enormous power - nuclear and chemical - and of the technology to operate in space. Conjoined, these masteries can, if used malevolently, destroy in one fell swoop most life on Earth, certainly most human life. On the other hand, and much more positively, they have not only immensely enhanced our living standards, but they can enable life to escape Earth's gravity and thus no longer be chained to the future of the planet. The mastery of enormous power also offers us, again for the first time, the possibility of deflecting meteorites and other cosmic bodies that may be on a crash course with Earth.

The third development is our forceful modification of the environment caused by population growth and ever-higher material living standards, with associated consumption of resources. These modifications, often accompanied by unintended negative consequences, are making the environment itself more and more into an artifact. They spur our concerns about sustainable development, the extinction of species, and major climate change.

The final and perhaps most important emerging development is the possibility of achieving a higher level of social intelligence for our species. This hyperintelligence is made possible, in principle, by the ability to link every one of us through telecommunications and computers, creating an interconnectedness way beyond McLuhan's global village (Bugliarello, 1990). Today's global markets are already a clear demonstration of the power and benefit of these linkages. If we succeed in using global interconnections to guide our other newly found abilities, we may no longer need to submit to constraints, concepts, and phenomena rooted in a much more primitive world, and we can hope to create synergies that can move the human condition to a new, higher plateau.

With hyperintelligence, we can imagine, for instance, a time in which we no longer need to accept the tyranny of the quest for food - the overriding preoccupation, throughout their history, of all living organisms. Quite simply, there is no longer any objective reason for a third of the world's population to go hungry. Neither is there any objective reason to accept the inevitability of war, because war has become a very inefficient and costly tool by which to acquire wealth and power. In summary, we can foresee a future in which we no longer need to accept the periodic cycles of sublime achievement and disaster that have marked our past.

These four developments have come about primarily during the second half of this century. Before that, escape from Earth's gravity was mainly science fiction, and nuclear war unimaginable. Manipulations of living systems were macroscopic, statistically based, and Mendelian. Pollution and environmental changes were much more circumscribed. The concept of hyperintelligence could not have emerged.

To reiterate, all four of these major new developments modify nature. They are acts of engineering in the broadest sense, even if they depend on a close alliance of engineering, science, and society. (For instance, we could not think of a possible defense against meteorites if society will not agree in the future to the importance of such a defense and if we had not in the past developed nuclear missiles and the ability to track them.) Thus it is engineering, broadly defined as the ensemble of activities modifying physical, biological, and social nature, that has brought us to these crossroads.

What makes today's crossroads fundamentally different from those that preceded it is that, for the first time, we see the prospect of changing our relation to nature and to each other. This is a time of infinite possibilities and infinite challenge. There is an urgent need for every responsible person to understand the richness of these options and the complexity of the challenge. This education must begin with engineers themselves, and, most basically, with engineers' involvement in the shaping of school curricula. It is, unfortunately, symptomatic that in today's national effort toward science standards for our schools - let alone for other subjects in the curriculum - engineering and a clear conceptual grasp of the activities that modify nature are not much in the picture.

But, even if society were to be educated and informed as well as it can be on these issues, how will knowledge become action? How will this happen if scientists and engineers and, for that matter, ethicists are not actively engaged in the political process? The politicians we elect need to be called to account if they are too timid to support the development and use of powerful new medical technologies like genetic testing, which today is dead in its tracks because of the inability to protect patient privacy, or if they are too hesitant to encourage the development of new energy technologies that may reduce the risk of conflicts, or if they are not concerned about the depletion of our patrimony of fundamental research in the physical sciences and engineering.

The challenge of the crossroads is a challenge to all of society, but first and foremost it is one for engineering, which is the necessary, indispensable instrument of change that can shape a new vision of the future. If engineering is to rise to this challenge, it needs to rethink itself. To begin with, traditional engineering has not dwelled on the fundamental kinship of purpose it holds with the other activities that are involved in changing natural phenomena. These include medicine, agriculture, and, importantly, education. Yet, recognition of that commonality is essential if engineers are to make the most of their knowledge and skills.

Modern engineering is the triumphant domain of pure rationality - a reasoned distillation of empiricism, experience and, above all, science. Mastery of pure rationality, however, is not enough if we are to tackle the challenge of our future. For instance, if we were purely rational, would we continue to have war - the hecatombes in this century alone of two world wars and the trauma of other bloody conflicts?

The point is that war, like many other aspects of social interaction, or like prejudice, is not a rational process but one governed by the strongest human emotions. And, parenthetically, one cannot think of war without thinking of engineers who, from the beginning, have worked on the machines of war. Thus, the engineering that is now called for must endeavor to combine rationality with an understanding of the emotional component of human actions. It needs to factor into its designs the view first put forth by Euripides that man is not wholly rational, a view that Adam Smith's "homo economicus" and its followers did not take into account. Rationality and emotion are both exquisitely human, and neglect of one or the other can spell disaster.

An Emotionally Satisfying Vision
Because of the reluctance to address human emotions, we engineers have not been able to offer an emotionally powerful and satisfying vision of the future, a vision that says there are ways to make our cities more livable; there are ways to eliminate poverty; there are ways to avoid destroying the environment and yet maintain an ever more civilized life; in brief, there are ways to lift our sights, improve globally the human condition, and enhance responsibly our unique presence in the universe. The paradox is that in many respects, engineers, who understand the dynamics of complex systems (see, for example, Kline, 1995), are better equipped than most to help address this situation. Systems thinking is necessary to deal with the billions of local decisions that, for a variety of reasons - economic, hedonistic, emotional - interact and shape society.

The fact is that engineering today is itself at a crossroads. Namely, will it limit itself to the pursuit of technical advances? Or, will engineering venture to develop new capabilities and a broader sense of mission?

If the second path is chosen, engineering must not only continue to push the limits of its technical capabilities, but it needs also to focus on two key syntheses that will determine how the future is played out. The first is the integration of what we know, what we can do, and what we should do - the integration of science, engineering, and ethics, that is, of knowledge, action, and wisdom. The second integration is of biological organisms, society, and machines, entities that have come to form an indissoluble new whole, an irreversible synergy, whether we like it or not. Quite simply put, our world of 6 billion people - soon to be 8 billion - would not be possible without increasingly close integration of people and machines, without ever-greater modifications of nature, and without more complex social organizations and innovations made possible by machines. The two integrations come together in a matrix in which bio-machine, socio-machine, and bio-social issues are interwoven with scientific, engineering, and ethical issues.

Fundamental Questions
The bio-machine issues involve a number of fundamental human-versus-machine questions: When or why should we use humans? When or why machines? We see this as a constant dilemma, in space, in war, and in education. In medicine, too, the question of the role of artificial organs and other implanted devices, looms large. Further, how far can we go (the engineering question) or should we go (the humanistic question) toward providing machines with human attributes, such as consciousness? How can we design into machines, as they become more and more prominent in our lives, a sense of humanity that would reduce our frustration when we deal with them? How far can or should we go in intimately merging biological organisms and machines, in creating bio-machines that combine and enhance the capabilities of both components? Indeed, can we merge - Zen-like - the artifact and its maker? This is something that would force the rethinking of many basic philosophical premises and add to biology a metabiological chapter that recalls Aristotle's metaphysics. Truly, how far should we extend humans?

Similarly, the socio-machine issues revolve around the fundamental question, How can machines extend society in a beneficial way? For instance, how can the machine give society greater latitude in planning and improving the expansion of the urbanized world, where fully half the global population lives? Are there alternatives to urban sprawl? Should we continue to have a day-city where we work and a night-city where we sleep, with the associated environmental and time costs in traveling from one to the other? And, in the developing countries, with their growing number of megacities, what could and should be done to find alternatives to the unaffordable, capital-intensive technologies of the industrialized world?

Also, how can machines - in transportation, telecommunications, and information technology - educate, create jobs, reduce poverty, and help all people of the world participate in global trade? What are the ethics of job displacement by machines? Certainly, the creation of machines absorbs people, but often not the same people who lose their jobs to the machines. Can we replace the human work, now performed by machines, with new ways to engage people that the machine itself may make possible? What are the limits of the presence of machines in our environment that we are willing to accept?

Are we concerned about the aesthetics, or lack thereof, in our environment because of a hodgepodge of machines that have not been coordinated, as exemplified by the jumble of computers and wires in our offices or by the wasteland under many urban highway overpasses? The neglect of aesthetics has given us the cyclone fence, ugly parking lots, efficient but benumbing offices with no outside windows, and possibly the sick-building syndrome. Most important, what is the relation between machines and freedom or machines and democracy?

These questions about machines, biology, and society are extreme challenges for all of us, particularly engineers. But, how can we even begin to answer them without defining what life is and what a machine is? There is a long history of confusion concerning these definitions, starting with Leonardo and, above all, Descartes, who saw the human as a machine (and in this perhaps lies the exclusion to this day of anything but pure rationality in the preparation and Weltanschauung of the engineer). De La Mettrie reinforced the Cartesian view in his famous book L'Homme Machine - man as a machine - and so did Aldous Huxley a century later (Mazlish, 1993).

Though they are seldom discussed in engineering schools, the engineer needs to be concerned about these questions because they are the foundations on which an understanding of the role of engineering in the future of our species must be built. The ability of engineering to create increasingly sophisticated machines endowed with capacities once thought of as the exclusive endowment of living organisms, such as memory or self-replication, makes the engineer an indispensable interlocutor in the debates about the definition, purpose, and quality of life - debates in which today the engineer is largely absent. Indeed, the engineer is the creator of a metalife that, as it grows in capabilities, may eventually - a long time from now - make the distinction between life and machine almost moot.

There is a host of other important societal issues that cannot be neglected in a new vision of engineering. For instance:

The Question of Growth, Sustainability, and the Environment. This is not only the philosophical question, Why growth and in what direction? but also a very practical one. Can we engineer a transformation of growth from quantity to quality, from wasteful and unsustainable consumption to more environmentally conserving high-value-added activities? Current developments in information, energy, and materials technologies give us hope that it may be possible to replace tangibles with intangibles, to reduce environmentally damaging energy transformations, and to use new, recyclable materials.

The Life-Span Challenge
An issue related to growth is increase in life span and the challenges that poses to technology. Can technology develop environments and machines for a population that is living longer than ever before in history? Much of the increase in average life spans - a doubling this century - has been due to improvements in nutrition, water supply, sanitation, and health care. How can these achievements be diffused to the very poor parts of the world, something that requires simpler and more affordable technologies? And, what comes next? Can engineering help develop that sense of complete physical and psychological well-being that is the definition of health used by the World Health Organization?

Besides these very visible issues, there are other, more insidious ones associated with growth that corrode our civilization. There is "road rage" on our crowded highways; the invasion of privacy exacerbated by the Internet; the long wait at airport gates because of more travelers and bigger planes; the crowding at national parks; and the information overload that affects every one of us. These are all concerns directly linked to the growth in number and capabilities of machines.

The Question of Work. Technology has made muscle and the ability to perform routine tasks less important than brain power and information, and it has emancipated us from many tedious or dangerous tasks. But, if information technology and automation are viewed as the cause of job loss, society's ambivalence about technology inevitably will be reinforced. This is perhaps why that ambivalence seems to be greater in Europe, where unemployment rates are currently higher than in the United States. The paradox is that, all over the world, there are immense needs for experienced people - to rebuild Bosnia, Rwanda, parts of the former Soviet Union, as well as the south Bronx and other inner cities, to repair at least one third of the 500,000 bridges in this country, and to provide clean water for about half of the world population and waste disposal for more than that. Although much of this is engineering work, the issue is not purely technological but socio-technological. That is, these problems can be resolved only by a successful synthesis of technological capabilities, societal concern, and organizational skills that the engineer of the future must learn to master.

The Question of Uniformity versus Diversity. Technology has brought about a great deal of uniformity of design. Clearly, standardization is a necessary component of technological development. But, have we gone too far? Will technology be able to give us the diversity we innately crave and try to express, for instance, through our clothing? Can we, in our artifacts and processes, mass-produce individuality, just as the biological world does? Certainly, computers are beginning to make this possible. The ability to enhance individuality may also help reduce the inevitable conflict between individual independence and social conformity. Further, how can technology help preserve diversity in other species, which, as we increasingly understand, is essential to the survival and sustainable development of our own?

The Question of Compassion. Compassion is another defining issue in the context of humanization versus dehumanization. Because engineering has such tremen-dous impact on society, it needs to be particularly sensitized to the need to be compassionate in its outlook and in its designs. We need to imagine the impact that a technological artifact or system may have on those who do not fit or are left behind. Most of the people in the world are technological have-nots. They do not possess a telephone, let alone a computer, and large numbers remain illiterate. How can they function in an increasingly information-oriented global economy? How will the gap between this majority and the minority of the technologically rich be closed? Resolution of these difficult problems demands that the engineer be committed, have a strong sense of compassion, and possess very high socio-technical skills. To reiterate: Today, only a few of these issues provoke systematic dialogue between engineering and the other disciplines, and few of them are discussed in engineering schools.

It may be that we have already passed the crossroads and our path is chosen, but we should not readily accept that. To remain masters of our fate, we need to use all our engineering skills and societal will. A new, holistic view of the wonderful instrument that we call engineering, and a new ambition for engineering - not only as a profession, but also as one of the cultural bases for every citizen - are the keys to keeping open many paths to the future of humankind.


Bugliarello, G. 1990. Hyperintelligence: Humankind's next evolutionary step. Pp. 25?37 in Rethinking the Curriculum Toward an Integrated, Interdisciplinary College Education, M. E. Clark and S. A. Wawrytko, eds. New York: Greenwood Press.

Kline, S. J. 1995. Conceptual Foundations for Interdisciplinary Thinking. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Mazlish, B. 1993. The Fourth Discontinuity - The Co-evolution of Humans and Machines. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

About the Author:George Bugliarello, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, is chancellor of Polytechnic University. This paper is based on a speech he gave 6 November 1997 at the 100th anniversary celebration of the Engineering School of Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.