We can… but should we?

More so than ever, humanity has the knowledge and technology to invent whatever it chooses. So common is innovation these days that its easy to get caught up in the hysteria and do things for their own sake.

Few ever stop to ask whether we should.

The Engineer offers an example. IoT, the Internet of Things has moved beyond the purview of industry and into the home. It seems like all new appliances come with WiFi. Washing machines, fridges, smart meters, Amazon Alexa, everything is connected.

The Engineer recognises that his brethren like to design such equipment. It allows creativity, a certain set of challenges and is just plain fun. But what is the point?

How many people really need to remote control their washing machine? It can’t unload itself. A smart fridge may order you fresh milk, but you still need to put it in the fridge yourself. A smart meter may report your energy usage, but does it actually benefit the consumer?

The Engineer believes this is engineering for engineering’s sake, that sight of the end goal has been lost. Would development efforts not be better spend on increasing energy efficiency, making a machine to clean clothes better, a fridge that keeps food fresh for longer?

Perhaps then, engineers should calm the excitement of what can be done and ask whether it should.

Internet connected washing machines and fridges etc may break your privacy but they aren’t really going to break the world. But things are changing. Think AI. Humanity is, for the first time in its history, considering delegating responsibility for its safety and security to a new breed of intelligent machines.

Of course, The Engineer does not subscribe to visions of Skynet starting nuclear war, but rather something more subtle. Think driverless cars with the ability to decide who lives and who dies in an accident. Automated air traffic control. Censoring the internet.

What would happen if engineer’s approached these developments with the same attitude as they do a connected washing machine? Who knows but we should all be trembling in our boots.

The Engineer encourages his colleagues to take pause before such endeavours and recognise the sheer power and responsibility they yield is shaping humanity’s future.


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