I was working for a large project engineering company and had the pleasure of being part of their innovation conference. The title of the talk was “Engineering the future”. That will also be the title of my next book about books.
Make, Think, Imagine
Hence “Make, Think, Imagine, Engineering the Future of Civilisation” which is a book about the importance of engineers. Scientists invent, but engineers make it happen. And engineering has given us the progress we currently experience (and the mess). When it is done well, engineering produces innovations that allow us to solve our problems and improve our well-being, while expending less effort and cost. Engineering is like a game of cat and mouse, in which innovators must continuously act to ensure that the intended consequences of their efforts outweigh the unintended ones. Engineers as moral guardians.
The author takes you to a historical journey of technology developments and engineering. Where making things is the root of all progress. ‘The hockey stick graph’ of prosperity, which ‘tootles along, doing nothing very much for hundreds of years and then, in the nineteenth century, turns a corner and becomes exponential’. Indeed, since Smith’s time, the total real output of the world’s economy has soared, from the equivalent of one trillion dollars to 110 trillion dollars, and GDP per capita has increased more than ten-fold.
Many complex manufactured products that started life as expensive luxuries have become mass-produced, and hence affordable. That is one of the most transformative powers of engineering. For example, the mobile phone rapidly became affordable. There was only one available in 1973; it cost $4,000, and the battery lasted for half an hour. Now a well-equipped handset is cheaper than a meal in a mid-priced restaurant.
The ‘Six Sigma’ process was developed in 1986. This process can provide a statistical guarantee that 99.99966% of parts produced are free of defects and is recognised as a hallmark of excellence. My project engineering friends pointed out to me that when you engineer infrastructure, that percentage of 99.99966 is not good enough. A bridge or a nuclear plant needs to be 200% guaranteed. And you can imagine the challenge with the increasing impact of climate change (wind, heat, water, acid, nitrate, carbon, etc.).
With engineering, we are now entering a number of new frontiers such as synthetic biology, 3D printing (analysts have projected that 3D printing could eliminate one-quarter of world trade by 2060), nanotechnology, robotics, quantum computing, blockchain, AI, bionics, augmentation, genetics, etc.
The internal combustion engine let us move freely. Indoor plumbing removed squalor and sickness. Refrigerators and air-conditioners kept food fresh and hot summers productive. Penicillin and chemical fertilisers kept us alive and well-fed. There is a lot of talk about the immediate impact of ‘exponential technologies’, but most transitions in manufacturing still unfold at a relatively slow rate.
From cave paintings to language to pen to printing to telegraph to phone to world wide web. From punched cards to keyboard interfaces, to touchscreens and now to voice control. Eventually, to neural interfaces. All combined in a smartphone. The smartphone is itself a powerful tool for communication, which we can achieve by connecting with others. Rather than having a single inventor, its design built upon years of innovation and connected the work of thousands of engineers. Scaling laws of this kind apply to all information networks, whether or not they are mediated by technology.
Engineering, steel, cement, lifts and cities. Six hundred cities worldwide will be responsible for nearly two-thirds of all global economic growth between 2010 and 2025 and 440 of these are in developing countries. With the developments in ICT, AR, VR, etc., engineers now have the freedom to test new ideas in a virtual world, further liberating them from a purely functional approach. Engineers can experiment. Crucially, engineers can now make mistakes, so long as they make them virtually. Creating a new era of building innovation that is powered by digital tools assisting with the design and execution of increasingly ambitious structures. Rather than ‘consuming at one end and spewing out waste at the other’, there will be a time when buildings and whole cities will efficiently convert waste into energy and when many buildings will generate more power than they consume.
- Highly efficient light-emitting diodes could provide artificial light twenty-four hours a day and be used within a city to grow high-quality fresh food, providing new sources of employment and simpler food delivery systems.
- Intelligent buildings not as the individual components, but making them work together.
- China has now embedded the concept of the “ecological here civilisation.”
- The development of a ‘sponge city’, in which pavements and impermeable concrete barriers are replaced with porous structures, with all available space, including rooftops, central reservations and derelict areas, intensively planted to create natural and living water management systems.
- Engineering regenerative systems
- Porous urbanism where cities are built and then left in an unfinished state, to be completed over time, is the only viable way to meet the world’s looming housing crisis.
- Using architecture as an open platform is one powerful way to incorporate the aspirations of communities into the design process,
The shirts you wear, the medicines you take, the fruits you eat, the fashions you buy, the Web pages you browse and everything else you consume relies on the engineered systems that energise our world. Energy is human civilisation’s greatest enabler, and without it, everything would stop. Just as it was engineers who gave us access to the rich sources of energy that simultaneously liberated us and threatened our future, it is now engineers who must shoulder the responsibility of developing viable alternatives. From fire to coal to oil to nuclear to nuclear fission, wind, solar, geothermal, hydropower and biomass. The electrification of our homes, cities, schools and industries was the most profound technological transition of all time, and one of the greatest advances in civilisation. Again enabled by engineers.
From stirrup to the wheel to roads and rail to self-driving. An interesting point here. In Japan trains routinely travel at 320 kilometres per hour, while a magnetic levitation train there recently hit 600 kilometres per hour on a test track. The author’s view is that the idea that everything is speeded up and faster in the modern age and that state-of-the-art technology inevitably sweeps across the world is not as true as you might think.
The four-satellite technique gives nanosecond worldwide-synchronised time at all the receivers. The global market for satellite navigation products and services is predicted to grow to €220 billion annually by 2020. Parkinson explains how it is now possible to measure the position of the Earth’s tectonic plates with sub-millimetre precision in three dimensions, which could eventually allow for earlier warnings of impending earthquakes. Even more significant to most people in their daily activities, the steadily improving accuracy and reliability of GPS systems allow a fast-moving vehicle to pinpoint its location to within less than fifty centimetres.
When considering engineering for defence, simple-minded notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ do not suffice. From gunpowder, the stirrup (again), the atomic bomb and encryption, to cyberwar, micro drones and slaughter bots. Engineers kill more people than soldiers.
The author gives a few examples, like the iKnife, which analyses the chemical composition of the cells that it vaporises as it cuts. Or the development of a tiny device, micro-machined with dozens of tiny reservoirs, each preloaded with a different chemotherapy drug. The device is sent down a needle into the body of a tumour, where the anti-cancer drugs then seep out into the cancerous tissue. Engineers save more lives than doctors.
A single cubic millimetre of the cerebral cortex, a piece about the size of a poppy seed, contains at least 50,000 neurons; each sprouts a thicket of fragile protrusions, called axons and dendrites, which permeate the brain, forming synaptic connections with approximately 6,000 other neurons. Together, there are at least 300 million synapses in every cubic millimetre of the brain, making it one of the most complex structures imaginable. It would take a year of scanning to image the contents of a millimetre cube of the human brain, at which rate the whole of the human cerebral cortex would take 500,000 years to map.
Mapping the brain is the first step to curing all brain illnesses. It takes little imagination to extrapolate to a future where brain-to-machine interfaces are available to anyone who wants to tune up their cognitive faculties. In fact, you have already merged with a machine, because you have a smartphone. Part of your mind already resides in the cloud. Engineers will do more for your mental health than therapists.
Quantum and nano engineers
When capable quantum computers exist, they will be able to model the ‘digital twins’ of the physical phenomena observed by the laser, opening up ever more possibilities for simulation and engineering at the atomic scale. Nano engineers.
Almost all major scientific progress, almost all disruptive, transformative steps forward are based on technology. Decades of exponential improvements in computing power have created unrealistic expectations about the rate of engineering advance that we should be making. It is Moore’s curse. That may be true in consumer electronics, where people have an appetite for trying new things, that’s rather different from taking anything of that sort and pushing it to the manufacturing sector.
Engineers as morel guardians
Engineers are slower. That is a good thing. If they stay moral.