In our last episode, we talked about efforts to predict the future. They were either spectacularly wrong (but entertaining) or vaguely plausible (but a little obvious). Both these efforts shared the technique of extrapolating some trend, to the point of either absurdity, or numbingly self-evident banality. The exercise, however, made me start thinking in terms of our engineering future, a trendy topic considering the President of the United States himself made the subject part of his recent State of the Union Address.
But, first, a confession: While I have been critical of forecasts that do little more than extrapolate trends, I have at the same time been scathingly critical of those who stray from that safe path. The reason is, trends are measured, while interpretations of those trends are not--they are opinions. Not that speculating on interpretations or guessing at underlying causes is by itself a bad idea. My beef is with those who try to present their opinions as if they were on the same plane as measured data. So, I hereby warn you that what follows is purely my opinion, a speculation on what the future holds for electronics engineering, based on a mixture of data, impression, and a few bad dreams I had.
I see two major forces driving engineering today. One is idealistic, and concerned with the greater good of all. The other is strictly mercenary, and concerned only with economic gains.
Young people, I suspect, are fairly idealistic when entering engineering. I base this on the observations that 1) young people tend to be idealistic, and 2) engineering doesn't pay that well. (After all, it would be silly to think anyone was going to retire to the Riviera after 20 years of sifting through online IC databooks.) So, if they're going into it for anything, it's going to have to be something other than money.
Engineering as practiced today, on the other hand, is nothing if not a very practical way of living and of looking at things. It's a very spartan kind of life, and it is becoming more so as emphasis on production rather than on innovation waxes. Draw up specs, get a design together, test it, get it out the door, and do the same thing tomorrow. It's all measured against your local currency, so if love, ecology, and curing homelessness aren't priced in, then they aren't part of the equation, and don't get considered.
That may be one reason why we're not seeing more young people, in the US anyway, flock into engineering. (In developing countries, where engineering is still a big step up, or where a command economy is directing kids into engineering, then naturally we are still going to see hordes of youngsters entering engineering. But not in the US.) That's prediction one--young people in the US will continue to see engineering as the career equivalent of Brussels sprouts for dinner. Didn't take a genius to figure that one out.
This prediction leads to another prediction, namely, that innovations will continue to take back seats to manufacturing prowess. Why? Because kids are risky dreamers, and companies don't want that. They want sure-thing assembly lines, where the only innovation is cheaper manufacturing, regardless of how many kiddie science fairs they sponsor. And kids don't want boring things like that. So, barring the success of something like cheap cold fusion, and a new golden age of leisure that will allow dreams to be better explored and implemented, I'd say we are going to see a slower pace of innovation overall in our profession, as kids stay out of the field, and companies stress sure-fire ways to making dough. In more dramatic words, we're seeing a waning of much of what makes engineering noble.
That won't be sustainable, because regardless of how the true soul of engineering is ignored, it will flower. When it does, it simultaneously destroys and raises up whole industries. Remember AT&T tried to suppress many of their inventions for decades, so as not to injure their existing businesses. But, instead, AT&T itself was destroyed. (Yes, the name survived, but that's about all they had left to sell.)
We're now in a similar situation globally. We'll explore it in the next installment of the Noble Profession. Your thoughts and comments are welcome.
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