– The future of engineering –
Our little car broke down. Suddenly it wouldn’t start any longer. Bummer, we were stranded. Our nice, romantic low-tech life seemed to come to a halt. Aren’t we slaves to our machines?
A machine, nowadays, is built ‘from the top down‘: designed by a person (or a group of persons) who mostly does his best to anticipate what can go wrong and program it to respond successfully to the conditions he happens to foresee. It is, of course, unrealistic to expect that he can ever foresee all possible conditions. Such a machine is only as good as the imagination of the designer. He conceives of a purpose and designs a machine to carry it out, but purpose is an infinitely complex concept that rarely lends itself to mechanistic solutions, to a fixed plan; and we only recently rediscovered that the universe is not at all mechanistic, that the world is not a machine. What we plan a machine to do is often much more complicated than we want to admit and more difficult to accomplish than we really can anticipate. With a car we wanted a machine that brings us from A to B. What did we get? A machine that can kill us in many different ways, directly and indirectly, even when it does bring us from A to B at times. The more we anticipate failures and try to incorporate programs for reactions to failures the more complicated and therefore failure-prone the machine becomes. The top-down approach has clearly its limits, and we all have stories to tell how we have become victims and slaves to machines, how engineers have made our lives miserable instead of better. The top-down designed machine doesn’t take into account the ephemeral aspect of our existence, the quality of temporariness and vagueness of our ideas, it does not conform to our most basic attribute of being alive and organic. A top-down designed machine, no matter how smart the designer, is essentially dumb and dead. Did we ever expect something else?
But engineers are not quite that reckless and irresponsible as they sometimes appear – I had grown deeply disenchanted with engineers when I once was one of them. Some always actually saw the deep problems and took up the challenge to solve them. There is a new era coming: the “bottom-up approach”.
Soon we will have new machines; dramatically different ones. Machines that are not designed to do something predetermined, but that are capable to learn, and to learn pretty much anything. Machines that have almost no initial programs at all, surprisingly simple, (actually with tiny brains similar to those of insects), dead and dumb in the beginning, but with the capacity to learn, with the single-minded assignment to relentlessly learn. Machines that either have or can develop artificial intelligence. Machines that not simply obey orders, but interact with us, understand even our unconscious intentions, machines that will not make us slaves any longer but be our slaves to a degree we have never even dreamed of. Many of these kinds of machines will even be able to reproduce themselves – really! – or recycle (terminate) themselves. They will be progressively similar to living organisms, they will actually be subject to ‘engineered evolution‘. Many of them will consist of organic matter, even derived from living organisms by genetic engineering. In fact, in the process of getting these machines, it’s almost certain that we will have to deeply revise the fundamental definition of life as such.
These “learning machines” will, of course, repair themselves, even without us noticing it – piece of cake. The whole idea of failure will get a new meaning. And here is the best part: they will begin to come within my own probable life time. I’m not kidding! This may all sound like science fiction (to some it may even sound like blasphemy), but anybody who is interested can see the evidence of this change coming on many different fronts and coming soon.
Well, this year, they were not there yet. The stupid engine computer in our car could not repair itself. Something happened inside which the designer did not anticipate and prepare for. I don’t really blame him/her, the complexity of the purpose of running a car engine is downright astronomical – too much for a human brain.
I – together with friends – exhausted my own brain power just to identify the problem, then I leaned back again and resumed to ponder the underlying endless mystery. The brother of a friend brought down a replacement when he flew in, a Mexican mechanic who, 5 years ago, probably didn’t know what a computer is, put it in again. Several other friends helped us out through the time of immobility. I learned a few things: like the amazing fact (to me) that you can start up a fuel-injection engine with a not working injector by hand-squirting gas into the intake, (of course, then it depends on the reason of the malfunction whether it will actually keep running). For two weeks our comfortable, allegedly so low-tech life seemed a little disturbed, but patience, once again, proved to be the only ingredient one has to add to the soup of things flowing by themselves, it all worked out just right and actually left us with a smile on our faces.
Engineers once started out as black smiths and carpenters, then they became scientists, in the future, I dare to say, they should be philosophers. spiritual authorities, people who rather interpret human desires, not fulfill them.
I’m getting carried away, it’s just an image!
Klaus December 11. 2008