The future probably won’t be a dystopian nightmare, but it feels like the world is dangerously close to the edge. Engineers will be crucial to keeping us from tipping over, says Professor Elanor Huntington, Dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science at ANU.
Civil engineers will soon no longer need to spend time calculating stresses and strains on the girders that hold up railway tunnels because they’ll have powerful computers to do that. Instead they’ll use their knowledge to figure out complex transportation engineering challenges, such as how they might reliably transport a large number of people across a city, in a short period of time.
But play this tape forward 10 or 15 years, says Professor Elanor Huntington, Dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science at ANU, and the picture will be very different.
“You’re going to have collections of civil engineers whose task is to figure out how to get three million people home safely from one side of a city to another in half an hour,” she said.
“At the same time, teams of electrical engineers will be figuring out how to achieve dynamic optimisation of delivery of electricity, not just to a particular railway station, but to the railway network, possibly the whole city, and maybe even the entire continent.
“Also, at the same time, the digital healthcare people will be trying to figure out how to achieve dynamic optimisation of in-home healthcare based on Twitter usage, and numerous other engineering disciplines will also be facing their own related issues. And that’s what we need to realise about the future; all of the challenges will be somehow related.”
Huntington, who is taking part in a panel discussion at the Australian Engineering Conference (AEC) 2018 on the topic of ‘Engineers as part of the great leap forward’, is most interested in how all of this ties together.
“Given that the challenges are all highly interconnected, we haven’t even begun that conversation yet,” she said.
It’s not a dystopian, fictional future that she’s talking about, Huntington insists. It is a very real future, the cusp of which we’re already standing on and for which the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science is reshaping its offerings.
The college is beginning to educate people towards the way engineering will look in 2050, she said. This will be an industry in which various engineering specialisations will have to come together within a far bigger system.
“It is going to change the way all types of engineers work,” Huntington said.
“Think about the example of the civil engineers working on the railway. The changes touch on the way we currently think of civil engineering, they touch on what we currently think of as electrical engineering, they touch on what we currently think of as software engineering and so much more.
“It’s a bigger system because these and other engineering disciplines will all interact with each other. We’re going to need people who can go deep into any one of these disciplines but who can also pull all the way back up and understand how they all connect.”
These all-seeing, all-knowing engineers are known as ‘systems engineers’, she says, and of course they have been in existence for a long time. But the new breed of systems engineers will find themselves working in an entirely different realm to the one they know today. They will be tasked with creating a workable system out of numerous components including civil, electrical, software, social media, human and more.
“A decade from now things are going to look really quite different because we’re going to be actively prosecuting this train of thought around the convergence of previously disparate disciplines,” she said.
“That is our focus, the convergence of disciplines. Basically, at ANU we’re going to build a college that is custom designed for the middle of the 21st century.”
Huntington has watched this change coming during a career spent mostly in the academic field. She also spent some time working with what was then known as the Defence Science and Technology Organisation and has been called in to organisations and onto projects as a professional consultant, particularly in the area of laser safety. Her research focus is very much on the future, specifically around experimental quantum optics.
“That sounds very fancy, but basically, I do research that looks into the technology of quantum communications and computing,” she said.
It’s a field that will change the way engineers work as it will offer faster and more powerful computing and communication systems. Quantum communication technologies, for so long an exciting idea that was near impossible to put in to practice, have been in use for specific applications for over a decade.
In 2007, a Swiss election was held with the assistance of the quantum cryptography, and in 2016, China launched a satellite that utilises ‘quantum key distribution’ which offers unconditional communication security between the satellite and teams on the ground.
“I work in the grey area between physics and engineering, in demonstration-of-principle experiments, which require large teams of researchers,” Huntington said.
“My research is all about trying to develop technology that will allow those ideas to escape into the wild and be commercialised.”
Are engineers slow to innovate?
There has long been a belief that engineers are slow to innovate and that, as a result, the future will come as a rude shock. Huntington says this point is a complex one. The motivation to stick to the tried and true comes not from a lack of innovation but instead from the simple fact that engineering, when it’s boiled down, is all about trust.
“Engineers are driven by a couple of competing sets of motivations,” she said.
“One is that we need to solve complicated design problems and to do this we are motivated by coming up with a creative, good solution. But that ‘good solution’ includes delivering on one of the fundamental promises of engineering: trust.
“When you drive across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, you trust that the bridge is not going to fall down. If you look at what’s been going on, particularly in the tech world recently, one of the things that is causing a lot of pain is the erosion of trust.”
This means engineers are constantly dealing with competing demands. The urge to create an innovative, high-quality solution must always be balanced out by the fact that the solution must do no harm. That leads to a tension between creativity and conservatism, and this is unlikely to ever change.
What will change is the way that various engineering disciplines will converge, meaning the safety, quality and security aspects of each will collectively be required to meet certain standards. Engineered software will be held up to the same safety and quality standards as physical constructions, for instance.
“We actually need to change the conversation a little bit around trust because we now live in a world of highly-connected heterogeneous systems,” Huntington said.
“They’re all distributed, they’re all different, but they’re also all deeply interconnected. The old ways of guaranteeing safety and trust don’t work so well. We need to completely rethink what trust looks like in this new world.”
Professor Elanor Huntington will be taking part in a panel discussion at this year’s Australian Engineering Conference in Sydney.