The words controversy and engineering are rarely combined in one sentence for most people. How can designing and building useful things be controversial?
But, like any other profession, engineering has its fair share of controversies - as you are about to find out.
Here we'll explore some of them and highlight some of the major challenges that engineers around the world are facing, either in the near future or in the long term. This is not intended to be an exhaustive guide on the subject, merely a thought-provoking exercise.
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What are the main challenges in engineering?
Engineering, by its very nature, is a field that tackles and overcomes many technical and other challenges.
According to sites like elsevier.com, these are some of the major challenges facing engineering over the next decade or so.
1. Upgrading the sagging infrastructure
2. Educating first world engineers to understand how to solve third world problems
3. Promoting green engineering to improve sustainability and reduce the carbon footprint in manufacturing
4. Identifying viable alternative energy sources
5. Rethinking how the city looks and works
6. Making STEM more appealing to young students
7. Safeguarding our personal data and wealth from cyberattacks
8. Addressing climate change through engineering innovation
9. Feeding our growing population through cutting-edge bio-engineering and agricultural innovations
10. Improving our health and well-being through life sciences, nanotechnology & bio-engineering
What are the main problems faced in civil engineering?
Further to the issues highlighted above, there are some others that are specific to civil engineers.
According to an article in the Institute of Civil Engineers (ICE), here are some of the major present and future challenges for civil engineers.
1. The tradeoff between integration and resilience of infrastructure: There is a desperate need to improve efficiency and integration with minimal interdependency to ensure resilience over time.
2. Engineers need to become better communicators: The profession is in desperate need of being able to communicate often complicated issues in terms non-engineers can understand and grasp.
Some of the major controversies in engineering
First, let's do some house cleaning and define what is meant by controversial. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, controversial is defined as an issue "giving rise or likely to give rise to controversy or public disagreement."
Seems straight forward enough, but since every person on Earth has their own views and opinions, many things could be technically defined as controversial. When we use this term, we really mean something that "jars" with our common sense of decency or understanding.
This tends to mean that a controversy causes widespread public argument, disagreement, or disapproval. There are many common examples you could probably think of, and many industries have their own specific examples.
In the field of engineering, there are some timeless and new "controversies" that we will attempt to discuss below. If you can think of any more, please feel free to add your suggestions to the comments section.
1. The design and construction of weaponry
This is probably the number one controversy in engineering. For this reason, we will spend some time on the subject.
War and mankind appear to go hand in hand. Our history is filled with conflict between warring tribes, people, and nations. In fact, war is not unique to humans. The greater apes, ants, meerkats, lions, and many other species go to war all the time.
Ants, for example, have been in something of a world war for millions of years. Literally, billions of ants are killed each and every single year.
It could be argued that life on Earth is the very product of an ongoing endless war between species and individuals since time immemorial. Our nature for war is, in some part, hardwired into us as a product of our evolution. Of course, there are others who disagree.
Some would also argue that we owe enormous technological and philosophical development to the existence of war and all its horrors. Controversial claim? We'll let you decide.
To go to war, soldiers need weapons and armor. These need to be designed and built by someone - engineers!
In this role, their jobs are to literally design and build things that will potentially take the lives of many people when used as intended.
Is that justifiable? Is it "good" to design things that kill?
At the end of the day, weapons in and of themselves are inert things. It takes people to use them to kill. At least for now (killer robots anyone?).
From this perspective, the "problem," if there is one, is with the operator, not the thing. Of course, without massively destructive things, like nuclear and bioweapons, people wouldn't be able to kill with impunity and "ease." Hence the controversy.
Whatever your views on warfare and weaponry, they are not going to disappear overnight. War will likely be a part of our species for the foreseeable future.
While the vast majority of people despise violence, it only takes a small number of people who are willing to use weapons to get their way to 'upset the applecart.' It can, therefore, be argued that for a people to survive, they must be willing and ready to defend themselves when needed. War is bad, but leaving the defenseless (e.g., children, infirm, elderly) unprotected might be considered ethically worse.
Engineers in the defense industry are, therefore, providing a vital service to the nation and people they serve. Without them, society would be open to attack from any number of nefarious agents leading to great suffering of non-combatants.
Until war is officially over (and the world appears to be getting more peaceful according to some), engineers in the defense industry are vitally important. You might not like the products of their labor, but they provide an essential service to the public and the species as a whole. Do you agree?
2. Bioengineering and ethics
The ability of man to "play god" with genetics is another enormous controversy in bioengineering. Is it "right" or "good" to play with the human genome in ways not seen in nature?
The advent of things like CRISPR-cas9 is a prime example. Is it ethical to play around with the very base code of a living thing?
While it can be used to defeat previously incurable diseases, and perhaps end cancer, it could as easily be used by bad actors for many nefarious actions.
What about "enhancing" humans? Is this ethical? Will it lead to dystopian future the likes of GATTACA and Brave New World?
Whatever your views on this subject, perhaps the underlying problem is our collective perception of the practice?
Engineering, in and of itself, like science, is just a tool, a method of producing something. It is not innately "bad" or "good." It is the way they are used, not the tool itself, that is problematic and controversial, isn't it?
3. "Conflict mineral" exploitation
"Conflict minerals" like "blood diamonds" extraction is another controversy in engineering, especially in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Some minerals like tin, cobalt, tantalum, tungsten, and gold are regularly mined from these areas of the world. Many of which are vital for the production of electronic goods. Their extraction and refinement require the expertise of engineers all over the world.
Is this practice "good" or "bad"? If their final destination is for the production of batteries for electric cars, is the price worth paying to fight a bigger challenge?
At the end of the day, where there is a demand, there will be a supply. Ultimately, with anything of this nature, it might be more of an issue for the consumer than the "actors," including engineers, in the supply chain. They are, after all, only providing a service that is in demand. If you are not happy with the practice, then stop buying products from manufacturers who source their raw materials from "unethical" sources.
A massive hit to their bottom line should quickly make them listen to customers concerns - hopefully. But is this really a problem? Again, the choice is yours.
4. Artificial intelligence and its potential impact on society
The development and deployment of AI is another controversial subject in engineering. For some, it spells the end of days; for others, it could yield the end of work.
Whatever you view, AI is proving to be better than humans at some tasks. This is certainly a highly controversial subject.
We'll leave the fears of human extinction at the hand of the machine aside. This would certainly be an unacceptable outcome, to say the least.
If AI does develop to a stage where it will put many out of work, it will have an enormous impact on our society. But, if technological revolutions have taught us anything in the last few centuries, new jobs will appear in the aftermath.
But this will require the displaced to "level up" to survive in a post-AI world. Is the development of AI justified if it forces millions of people to retrain and change careers? Or is this controversy just a storm in a teacup? Perhaps AI will only ever be a tool that makes human life, and work, much easier?
We'll let you decide.
5. Imperial versus metric measurements
And finally, the only controversy probably worth talking about. Is imperial or metric better?
We'll leave this hot potato, well, alone.