Saturday, January 28, 2012

Genesis for Engineers

Technology has come a long way since Australopithecus first bruised their fingers chipping flint to make knives and scrapers. We are blessed to fruitfully multiply, to fill the world and to master it (Genesis 1:28). And indeed the trend of technological history is towards increasing mastery over our world. Inventors deliberately invent, but many inventions are useless or even harmful. Why is there progress and how certain is the process? Part of the answer is that good ideas catch on and bad ones get weeded out. Reality, however, is more complicated: what is 'good' or 'bad' is not always clear; unintended consequences cannot be predicted; and some ideas get lost while others get entrenched. Mastering the darkness and chaos of creation is a huge engineering challenge. But more than that, progress is painful and uncertain and the challenge is not only technological.

An example of the weeding-out process, by which our mastery improves, comes to us in Hammurabi's code of law from 38 centuries ago:

"If a builder build a house for some one, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built fall in and kill its owner, then that builder shall be put to death. If it kill the son of the owner the son of that builder shall be put to death." (Articles 229-230)

Builders who use inferior techniques, or who act irresponsibly, will be ruthlessly removed. Hammurabi's law doesn't say what techniques to use; it is a mechanism for selecting among techniques. As the level of competence rises and the rate of building collapse decreases, the law remains the same, implicitly demanding better performance after each improvement.

Hammurabi's law establishes negative incentives that weed out faulty technologies. In contrast, positive incentives can induce beneficial invention. John Harrison (1693-1776) worked for years developing a clock for accurate navigation at sea, motivated by the Royal Society's 20,000 pound prize.

Organizations, mores, laws and other institutions explain a major part of how good ideas catch on and how bad ones are abandoned. But good ideas can get lost as well. Jared Diamond relates that bow and arrow technologies emerged and then disappeared from pre-historic Australian cultures. Aboriginal mastery of the environment went up and then down. The mechanisms or institutions for selecting better tools do not always exist or operate.

Valuable technologies can be "side-lined" as well, despite apparent advantages. The CANDU nuclear reactor technology, for instance, uses natural Uranium. No isotope enrichment is needed, so its fuel cycle is disconnected from Uranium enrichment for military applications (atom bombs use highly enriched Uranium or Plutonium). CANDU's two main technological competitors - pressurized and boiling water reactors - use isotope-enriched fuel. Nuclear experts argue long (and loud) about the merits of various technologies, but no "major" or "serious" accidents (INES levels 6 or 7) have occurred with CANDU reactors but have with PWRs or BWRs. Nonetheless, the CANDU is a minor contributor to world nuclear power.

The long-run improvement of technology depends on incentives created by attitudes, organizations and institutions, like the Royal Society and the law. Technology modifies those attitudes and institutions, creating an interactive process whereby society influences technological development, and technology alters society. The main uncertainty in technological progress arises from unintended impacts of technology on mores, values and society as a whole. An example will make the point.

Early mechanical clocks summoned the faithful to prayer in medieval monasteries. But technological innovations may be used for generations without anyone realizing their full implications, and so it was with the clock. The long-range influence of the mechanical clock on western civilization was the idea of "time discipline as opposed to time obedience. One can ... use public clocks to summon people for one purpose or another; but that is not punctuality. Punctuality comes from within, not from without. It is the mechanical clock that made possible, for better or for worse, a civilization attentive to the passage of time, hence to productivity and performance." (Landes, p.7)

Unintended consequences of technology - what economists called "externalities" - can be beneficial or harmful. The unintended internalization of punctuality is beneficial (maybe). The clock example illustrates how our values gradually and unexpectedly change as a result of technological innovation. Environmental pollution and adverse climate change are harmful, even when they result from manufacturing beneficial consumer goods. Attitudes towards technological progress are beginning to change in response to perceptions of technologically-induced climate change. Pollution and climate change may someday seriously disrupt the technology-using societies that produced them. This disruption may occur either by altering social values, or by adverse material impacts, or both.

Progress occurs in historical and institutional context. Hammurabi's Code created incentives for technological change; monastic life created needs for technological solutions. Progress is uncertain because we cannot know what will be invented, and whether it will be beneficial or harmful. Moreover, inventions will change our attitudes and institutions, and thus change the process of invention itself, in ways that we cannot anticipate. The scientific engineer must dispel the "darkness over the deep" (Genesis 1:2) because mastery comes from enlightenment. But in doing so we change both the world and ourselves. The unknown is not only over "the waters" but also in ourselves.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Age of Imagination

This is not only the Age of Information, this is also the Age of Imagination. Information, at any point in time, is bounded, while imagination is always unbounded. We are overwhelmed more by the potential for new ideas than by the admittedly vast existing knowledge. We are drunk with the excitement of the unknown. Drunks are sometimes not a pretty sight; Isaiah (28:8) is very graphic.

It is true that topical specialization occurs, in part, due to what we proudly call the explosion of knowledge. There is so much to know that one must ignore huge tracts of knowledge. But that is only half the story. The other half is that we have begun to discover the unknown, and its lure is irresistible. Like the scientific and global explorers of the early modern period - The Discoverers as Boorstin calls them - we are intoxicated by the potential "out there", beyond the horizon, beyond the known. That intoxication can distort our vision and judgment.

Consider Reuven's comment, from long experience, that "Engineers use formulas and various equations without being aware of the theories behind them." A pithier version was said to me by an acquisitions editor at Oxford University Press: "Engineers don't read books." She should know.

Engineers are imaginative and curious. They are seekers, and they find wonderful things. But they are too engrossed in inventing and building The New, to be much engaged with The Old. "Scholarship", wrote Thorstein Veblen is "an intimate and systematic familiarity with past cultural achievements." Engineers - even research engineers and professors of engineering - spend very little time with past masters. How many computer scientists scour the works of Charles Babbage? How often do thermal engineers study the writings of Lord Kelvin? A distinguished professor of engineering, himself a member of the US National Academy of Engineering, once told me that there is little use for journal articles more than a few years old.

Fragmentation of knowledge results from the endless potential for new knowledge. Seekers - engineers and the scientists of nature, society and humanity - move inexorably apart from one another. But nonetheless it's all connected; consilient. Technology alters how we live. Science alters what we think. How can we keep track of it all? How can we have some at least vague and preliminary sense of where we are heading and whether we value the prospect?

The first prescription is to be aware of the problem, and I greatly fear that many movers and shakers of the modern age are unaware. The second prescription is to identify who should take the lead in nurturing this awareness. That's easy: teachers, scholars, novelists, intellectuals of all sorts.

Isaiah struggled with this long ago. "Priest and prophet erred with liquor, were swallowed by wine."(Isaiah, 28:7) We are drunk with the excitement of the unknown. Who can show the way?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Mind or Stomach? Imagination or Necessity?

"An army marches on its stomach" said Napoleon, who is also credited with saying "Imagination rules the world". Is history driven by raw necessity and elementary needs? Or is history hewn by people from their imagination, dreams and ideas?

The answer is simple: 'Both'. The challenge is to untangle imagination from necessity. Consider these examples:

An ancient Jewish saying is "Without flour, there is no Torah. Without Torah there is no flour." (Avot 3:17) Scholars don't eat much, but they do need to eat. And if you feed them, they produce wonders.

Give a typewriter to a monkey and he might eventually tap out Shakespeare's sonnets, but it's not very likely. Give that monkey an inventive mind and he will produce poetry, a vaccine against polio, and the atom bomb. Why the bomb? He needed it.

Necessity is the mother of invention, they say, but it's actually a two-way street. For instance, human inventiveness includes dreams of cosmic domination, leading to war. Hence the need for that bomb. Satisfying a need, like the need for flour, induces inventiveness. And this inventiveness, like the discovery of genetically modified organisms, creates new needs. Necessity induces inventiveness, and inventiveness creates new dangers, challenges and needs. This cycle is endless because the realm of imagination is boundless, far greater than prosaic reality, as we discussed elsewhere.

Imagination and necessity are intertwined, but still are quite different. Necessity focusses primarily on what we know, while imagination focusses on the unknown.

We know from experience that we need food, shelter, warmth, love, and so on. These requirements force themselves on our awareness. Even the need for protection against surprise is known, though the surprise is not.

Imagination operates in the realm of the unknown. We seek the new, the interesting, or the frightful. Imagination feeds our fears of the unknown and nurtures our hopes for the unimaginable. We explore the bounds of the possible and try breaking through to the impossible.

Mind or stomach? Imagination or necessity? Every 'known' has an 'unknown' lurking behind it, and every 'unknown' may some day be discovered or dreamed into existence. Every mind has a stomach, and a stomach with no mind is not human.