MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Industry veterans laid out four grand challenges in engineering at a National Academy of Engineering event here at the Computer History Museum—preparing the next generation of engineers, creating a more interactive medium than HTML, developing truly secure systems for the Internet of Things and responding to the bandwidth crisis in big data centers.
Engineers should spend time in K–8 classrooms as a service project, “like coaching little league — we have to grow an engineering culture,” said Alan Kay, a former fellow at Apple, Disney and Hewlett Packard. “Our notion of service has to be directed toward the next generation…the kids can’t wait,” said Kay who helped pioneer the concept of the personal computer at Xerox PARC in the 1970’s.
However, he was quick to note it’s hard to find the right balance of engineering and teaching skills and effective techniques to engage young students. For example, massive open online courses, a current rage at the university level, “are terrible,” and “you have to have some insights to use” the Internet “as something other than a legal drug,” he quipped.
“Almost nothing” will come to pass from a 2002 initiative to define the needs of the engineer in 2020, said Kay who participated in the effort. He called for engineers to think big to define bold directions.
“Why can’t engineering re-engineer itself?” he asked. “We need an imagination amplifier that lets us respond ahead of time” to unanticipated challenges such as climate change, he said.
Code ties a diagram, formula and chart into a related, interactive experience Click to enlarge. Source: Bret Victor
Bret Victor, a user interface expert who worked on the iPad at Apple, stunned attendees with a preview of a smart, interactive interface. For example, a description of a filter (above) lets users make changes in a related circuit diagram, formula and graph to see their implications across all three.
“This shows how the graph, equation and circuit diagram dance together. It gives you an intimacy with the system that you can’t get any other way,” he said, moving elements around in a demo.
A handful of engineers at Google are trying to use these techniques in a new publication they launched dedicated to machine learning. They may have “put in something like 100 hours on each article, so we have got to get over a hump,” said Victor, suggesting the technique may spawn a new class of programming-savvy graphics artists.
Nevertheless, the technique hold promise for richer, interactive experiences.
“We’ve gotten good at letting computers move bits around fast, but what bits represent are still things like paper that we are used to. We are using the internet as a giant fax machine,” Victor said.
Moderator Vint Cerf characterized the work as opening the door to a new kind of literacy. However, he noted the archival challenge that “the underlying software still has to work in 100 years.”
Others suggested the effort is part of a broad move from an era of information to one of experiences. Some cited work on large tiled panels as another attempt to deliver richer experiences.
Next page: Dealing with IoT’s insecurities