Engineers can build it for you

Posted by on March 7th, 2011

Mr Matthew Plymale, student of Computer Engineering at Concordia University in Montreal, has sent in a most interesting submission:

Background: Engineering is evolving to acknowledge several facts: that engineers have multi-disciplinary skills, that those skills can benefit people already working in other fields, that engineers place great emphasis on the integrity of their professional practice on a global scale, that engineers have ethical and social responsibilities for their creations, and that engineers can be agents of change. These changes are causing engineers (and engineering education) to look beyond the textbook, to the world outside, and causing them to make themselves available for potentially radical projects without corporate interest or backing.

Engineers can build it for you

There has always been an unspoken battle of ideas between scientists and engineers. From the scientist’s perspective, the scientist comes up with the theoretical and experimental foundations for technology, while the engineer simply turns that work into money. From the engineer’s perspective, the scientist thinks about doing great things, but it takes an engineer to do them. The scientist prides himself in making things make sense. the engineer prides himself in making things work. Part of the animosity stems from the fact that scientists tend to work at universities, and engineers tend to work in corporations or consulting firms.

Recently, there has been a push in engineering education to impose the desire upon the engineer to expand beyond his specific field, and make connections. Economics can be modeled by artificial agents; The risk of a medical device to malfunction can be modeled with numerical methods; Start-ups can benefit from engineering processes to quickly get organized. The drive to make those connections used to come from entrepreneurs who could stand to make a buck from marketing that knowledge. Increasingly, we see engineers taking their knowledge on the road, to build networks, stir people to action and enable change. Unfortunately, engineers tend to be a quiet bunch, preferring to bow out of policy-making and protest-organizing.

We left it to the hobby-makers and high-tinkerers to come up with innovative gadgets use and languages to speak with. But what we used to relegate to the weekend project is now becoming sorely needed. While it seems the desire for change and tools to enact that change is stronger than ever, the change agents of today don’t seem to know how to get there. They are experimenting with different methods, some radical and some subtle. Engineers can no longer isolate themselves from the quickening pace outside.

The engineer does not necessarily care how you feel about a topic. He wants to know what you need.

I need a global communication grid.”  ”Done.”

“I need something to protect me from Big Brother” ”Take this, now they can’t track you”

“I need some cyborg wings” ”Do you prefer a matte or gloss finish?”

Part of the problem is that engineers do not advertise themselves very well. The same technology I use to build a multiplayer game can be used to send encrypted messages to and from oppressed dissidents. I have to take responsibility for the fact that my creations have a broader impact, whether good or bad. I am ready to take on that responsibility (it is written into our code), and until now, I thought other people would ask me to build those tools. Maybe the best approach is to build it and send it out into the world, and hope it is picked up by the people who need it?

If you find yourself with a challenge involving politics, economics, medicine, AND human rights, maybe you should ask an engineer. Because we can build it for you.

* Title Credit goes to Phillip K. Dick (author of “We can build you” and “We can remember it for you wholesale”)

I like this. I like this a lot! I am very fond of the work being done by Geeks Without Bounds for the same reasons. Thank you, Matthew.