In This Issue
Engineering Evolving
September 1, 1997 Volume 27 Issue 3
The Bridge, Volume 27, Number 3 - Fall 1997

Engineering and the Future of Technology

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Author: Joseph F. Coates

Genetic "enhancement," earthquake prevention, "smart" buildings, virtual-reality education, and a host of other engineering-driven developments are on the horizon.

Not since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution have the prospects for engineering and technology been so bright. We in the advanced nations live in a largely man-made world. The devices, artifacts, materials, and systems of society are all products of the engineering enterprise. The rest of the world is steadily moving to the same condition.

Globalization of world economies, by promotion of international trade and commerce, is creating a global division of labor all among nations. Ultimately, everything in commerce will either be raw materials (grown or mined through highly engineered technologies), manufactured products, or advanced services dependent upon engineered systems. Even those aspects of human enterprise that are closest to raw nature, agriculture and animal husbandry, are increasingly technologized. Their steadily rising productivity depends upon engineered systems.

The big forces of nature - weather, tides, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions - are better understood as a result of complex engineering systems for data gathering, analysis, interpretation, and forecasting. We are on the brink of engineered interventions to influence and even control these fundamental forces of nature.

As our engineered world moves to complexity, unprecedented in history and largely unanticipated in the early and middle phases of the industrial era, engineering itself is becoming more complex. To be successful, the engineer of the future is likely to be hyphenated (i.e., to have training in two or more fields and to draw them together as a special competency. Competency implies that the end of school and beginning of career is only a way station in lifelong intellectual refurbishment and the acquisition of new skills).

Five Fundamental "Shapers"
Let me turn now to some of the areas of engineering that will flourish in the early decades of the 21st century. In a 3-year project, I and my colleagues collected all of the forecasts in all areas of science, engineering, and technology that we could find. We analyzed them in a systematic way to produce 41 reports running to about 4,000 pages. Later, in the second phase of the project, we produced our own forecast for the year 2025, which has now been published as a book (Coates et al., 1997). In that panoramic examination, it was clear that five areas of technological development would be fundamental shapers of the next stages of the human enterprise. Genetics, energy, materials, brain, and information technologies will be the great enablers of the future. A sixth area, not itself a technology but acting as an influential wash over all technologies, will be environmentalism.

As each new development of science matures, it is reduced to effective practice through engineering. As the human genome project comes to completion, for example, genetics-based technologies will emerge that allow diagnosis and evaluation of individuals' potential for disease. We will have, for ourselves and our children, an implicit picture of our likely personal development or evolution. That will create a new boom in medical technologies as we look for ways to correct, neutralize, or modify undesirable conditions and, ultimately, to genetically enhance ourselves. The technologies for collecting, organizing, interpreting, and dealing with that genetic knowledge will create information networks and radically improve epidemiology.

The technologies for manipulating other living things will be more surprising, and, in many regards, more effective. New technologies for controlling pests, for enhancing food sources, for expanding and manipulating biota, for rapidly creating new plant varieties and new transgenic species, will all expand our capacity for healthful survival on our increasingly congested and integrated planet.

Engineering has brought us highly effective and economically productive energy sources: first water, then coal, later petroleum, and now natural gas and, to a significant degree, nuclear power. In the future, there will be less dependency on single sources and greater dependency on multiple sources. The one greatest uncertainty in the energy future is whether greenhouse warming will prove to be real and significant. Should it be both, engineering will be called on initially and in the long run to deal with the goal of massive energy conservation. Improvements in the design of structures, in insulation, in the efficiency of the flow of electricity (probably through the applications of superconducting materials), and the development of new, more efficient engines using petroleum and natural gas will move ahead rapidly and simultaneously. But that will not be enough.

Lying in the future will be two primary sources of noncarbon fuels on which we are likely to reconstruct our global energy infrastructure: nuclear power, based largely on the French model, with uniformity of design, economy of scale, and interchangeable parts and staff; and solar power, primarily photovoltaics for direct generation of electricity and passive solar for the production of hot water.

The reengineering of the global energy infrastructure is inevitable, should significant greenhouse warming occur. If greenhouse warming turns out not to be significant, the improved exploitation of fossil fuels will challenge engineering. New means of petroleum extraction - what for lack of a better terminology might be called quaternary recovery - will emerge due to improved geological subsurface mapping, more flexible drilling, and yet-to-be-invented techniques. Natural gas is being found in such abundance and so frequently that it is almost as if God had burped the earth. Finally, in even greater quantities than petroleum and natural gas are the gas hydrates, molecular-scale ice cages containing methane molecules. It is through engineering that existing and new fuel resources will be optimally recovered or discovered, developed and used.

Materials technology is the hidden revolution in engineering. Historically, we have been dependent upon the intrinsic limitations of materials in whatever we built. Fundamental new knowledge now allows us to realistically consider designing new materials from scratch with any set of characteristics we choose. (Glass, for example, that it is flexible in a certain temperature range, photoresponsive, and perhaps also simultaneously electrically conductive is not beyond our capabilities.)

Social forces are acting to push many of the large artifacts of society to greater durability and longer lifetimes, and encouraging greater use of recycling, reclamation, and remanufacturing. Environmental pressures, limitations on resources, and the capabilities of engineering will make durability and those three Rs universal and routine throughout the world.

Another aspect of materials is the movement to miniaturization and modularity. Small modules use less material and energy and lend themselves to convenient replacement and centralized repair or reclamation. Microdevices smaller than the cross section of a human hair are now in commerce. These devices will function as sensors, actuators, and functioning elements in boundless applications in machines and living organisms, including people. Beyond micromachines lies the more speculative world of nanodevices. Nanotechnology will be based on the manipulation of individual atoms and molecules, with the ultimate goal of allowing us to duplicate what nature does. While it is hardly conceivable that we can collapse 3 billion years of evolution into a few decades, we are already witnessing the engineering capability to cut, to machine, to make sandwiches at the nanolevel. Those capabilities will develop into important parts of the engineered world over the next few decades.

The 1990s is the decade of the brain. During this 10-year period, there will probably be more knowledge generated about the structure, function, organization, and operation of the brain than accumulated from the previous 100 years of scientific exploration. It is now clear that many brain functions are located in specific sites and are fundamentally biochemical in nature. As those processes are explored, scientists will increasingly ask, If something goes wrong, what causes it? Is that source endogenous? Is that source something we take in from our food, through our skin, or in our breath? How do we intervene to neutralize the bad or enhance the good?

Corrective Medicine and Radical Cosmetics
One could take the available knowledge about the whole body and couple that with the emerging knowledge of the brain and come to the realistic conclusion that we will not merely move into a world of corrective medicine but into one in which the body and the mind will be the field of operation for radical cosmetics. No aspect of the human being, whether physical, intellectual, social, psychological, or physiological, will be beyond practical manipulation and change, all of which will be made possible and practical through engineering.

Information technology has already worked radical changes in American and world society, but we have barely begun to feel the transformational consequences of the newest developments. Fiber optics will in many parts of the world drop the cost of telecommunications so low that it will be virtually free. Wireless communication will in itself be of value and will also be a primary flow into and out of the fiber optics network. Low-cost communication will continue to alter radically the way we do business, where we work, and how we work. It will lead to the emergence of electronic commerce and create new systems of relationships while raising new social issues, particularly those related to equity and privacy.

As technology tied to information increases in economic competence, it is inevitable and natural that government will in some way make it a source of revenue. We anticipate a tax system that will generate revenue based on the number of bits and bytes, not content. As the cost of telecommunications drops, the important engineering opportunities will be less in the network itself and more in the end-use applications.

The important consequence of the continued growth in computer capacity and speed is that every time we increase the machine's capability by one or two orders of magnitude, we are able to engage a new social problem in real time. The traditional approach to a troublesome situation is to examine it, gather data, come to some conclusions, propose changes, make the changes, and then cycle through again. The ability to do real-time management holds the exciting potential of making every system into a continuous open-ended experiment. The value of this lies not just in the implied technical elegance. As our world becomes more complex, top decision makers in business and government are simply unable to make adequate judgments about the management of complex systems under their care. Yet, faced with the need to manage, open-ended continuous experimentation is a healthy alternative to making definitive, rigid, and often defective decisions.

"Smart" Artifacts
Every engineered artifact will become "smart" as it acquires its own sensors, microprocessors, and actuators. As things become smart through the integration of information technology, they will be able to do three things: evaluate their internal performance; evaluate their external performance; and, if either is suboptimal, initiate repair or call for help. The next logical step will be to link these smart things into systems for more effective and often remote management. It will be commonplace to evaluate, manage, and control systems from a few to a few thousand miles away.

The engineers who design food packaging will get together with the engineers who design kitchen appliances to create interactive, smart food packages. The resulting products are likely to cut meal preparation time to a few minutes, lead to systems programmed for the various tastes of the people who are going to enjoy the meal, and drastically shorten cleanup and maintenance time.

Smartness will show up in many other ways. Homes and buildings have been widely viewed as good targets for smart features to sense air leaks, water leaks, break-ins, and a score of other things. But smartness in structures will go beyond that. If we consider the developments in materials and those in information technology, we see the emergence of an entirely new engineering paradigm for buildings.

Historically, building construction has been based upon either compression or tension. What we anticipate are featherweight buildings in which the support structure - the frame - is made out of high-performance recyclable composites. As the structure is put up, it will be laced with steel cables attached to motors. The steel cables will give strength to the structure. External and internal sensors will evaluate the stresses on the building and orchestrate the cables' tension or relaxation in an appropriate way. The result will be dynamic, responsive structures. Going a step further, it should be possible to design buildings that can be dismantled and moved to another site, or made bigger or smaller, taller or shorter as needs change.

Emerging rapidly to parity in importance with telecommunications and computational capabilities are various forms of imaging, from the barcode to virtual reality. In the extreme, virtual reality, with or without an assist from other artificial intelligence (AI), will have dramatic engineering consequences, first and foremost in education and training. Virtual reality and AI systems will permit and encourage 100-percent mastery of academic material, which should dramatically affect the lives and careers of those who are so educated. Tasks that would normally take years to master will be absorbed in weeks or at most months, and tasks that would normally take months to learn will be mastered in days or weeks. That kind of teaching will, for the first time, boost learning for everyone, whatever their preferred learning strategy - visual, acoustic, or kinesthetic.

Designs of all sorts are now being done in cyberspace. Soon, everything will be tested, evaluated, and modified on-line before any physical, solid thing is constructed. This will not apply just to mechanical things, it will apply to other areas such as chemical engineering and even molecular design, a new field driven by the emergence of the molecular engineer. The computer and associated imagery will be dynamic, three-dimensional, and multimedia. Ultimately, that imagery will not only affect how well we think, but also the way we think. There will be a high premium on pictorial, multidimensional, and dynamic thinking.

Information will come together in many different ways to create new applications. Imagine, for example, if the next time the U.S. president gives a speech, engineers design a real-time feedback network of 10,000 television viewers. As the president is talking, the 10,000 people respond, on an agree-disagree scale of 1 through 5, to what is being said. As the president is speaking, histograms would appear over his left shoulder. A rating of 1 could mean "damn lie," while one of 5 might indicate "agree completely." Such a system could be political dynamite, blowing away empty political rhetoric and encouraging content in political discourse. Imagine that capability being engineered into every business as well as government.

New applications will come out of the confluence of information and other technologies. Information technology will allow for better data gathering, analysis, planning, testing, and evaluation as a basis for macroengineering. Macroengineering, or planetary engineering, could become one of the aspects of a continuing open-ended experiment. Macroengineering could include such things as towing icebergs to the west coast of South America or preventing a third big San Francisco earthquake. The latter might be accomplished by engineering a continuous round of Richter 3 temblors along existing faults to avoid the 50-to-75-year build-up of geologic stress that leads to much more massive quakes.

Environmentalism will influence almost all engineering developments because of the growing global awareness that new technologies often carry with them unacceptable negative consequences, many of which could have been avoided or greatly mitigated. That historic lesson will eventually become the planning base for the future. Potential effects on the environment, long term and short term, proximate and remote, will be integrated routinely into engineering design and planning. The central science of environmentalism will be ecology.

The Life of the Engineer
Last, but certainly not least, the professional life of the engineer will change as radically and as richly as the technology he or she helps bring into existence. The two-income household will start the engineer off with a degree of economic independence that will promote professional independence. There will be more small- and large-scale consulting firms, and more entrepreneurship as a result. Minorities and, particularly, women will become increasingly central to the profession and will bring with them new issues, concerns, and design strategies. The working engineer will have a large support base to multiply his or her skills and competence, mostly coming out of advances in information technology. The range of concepts integrated into the professional's thinking will expand. For example, the notion that for every engineering solution there is a nonengineering, social solution will enlarge the trade-offs to consider. The coming decades will be a great time to be an engineer, especially a young one.

About the Author:Joseph E. Coates is president of Coates & Jarratt, a Washington, D.C. think tank and policy research company.