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.
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
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 straightforward 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 a 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 is a very hot topic for some
This is a big controversy in engineering. For this reason, we will spend some time on the subject.
War and humankind appear to go hand in hand. Our history is filled with conflict between warring tribes, people, and nations. Of course, conflict is not unique to humans. The greater apes, ants, meerkats, lions, and many other species all engage in types of conflict over dominance, resources, and territory.
It could be argued that life on Earth is a series of endless wars between species and individuals. It has been argued that 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 weapons, like nuclear bimbs 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 could, therefore, be seen as providing a vital service to the nation and the people they serve. Without them, society would be open to attacks from any number of nefarious agents, leading to the great suffering of non-combatants.
Until warfare is at an end (and the world appears, at least statistically, 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. Do you agree?
2. Bioengineering and ethics is a sticking point for many
The ability of humans 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 techniques like CRISPR-Cas9 is a prime example. Is it ethical to play around with the very base code of a living thing?
While this and similar techniques can be used to defeat previously incurable diseases, perhaps someday even ending some types of cancer, they could possibly be used as easily for nefarious purposes.
What about "enhancing" humans? Is this ethical? Will it lead to a 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?
Bioengineering, in and of itself, like other types of science, is just a tool, a method of producing something. It is not innately "bad" or "good."
But, bioengineering has some less controversial aspects. By developing methods to create artificial organs, surgical robots, biomaterials, etc, have been infinitely beneficial for humanity as a whole.
It is the way they are used, not the tool itself, that is problematic and controversial, isn't it?
3. "Conflict mineral" exploitation is also highly contentious
"Conflict minerals" such as "blood diamonds" extraction is another controversy in engineering, especially in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The main controversy comes from the fact that these parts of the world are, often, in a state of civil war.
The potential monetary reward from controlling conflict mineral resources often leads to mass bloodshed, loss of life, and shocking human rights violations. These range from the use of children as soldiers to, sadly, sexual abuse, rape, and sometimes slavery.
In short, they are bad ethically, morally, and often environmentally.
Some minerals like tin, cobalt, tantalum, tungsten, and gold are regularly mined from these areas of the world. Many of these minerals are vital for the production of electronic goods.
Their extraction and refinement require the expertise of engineers.
Is this practice "good" or "bad"? If their final destination is for the production of batteries for electric cars, is warfare, environmental degradation, and human suffering somewhere far away a 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 - those making the demand - than those, including engineers, who are providing the supply.
The suppliers 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.
Of course, this does not address the question of how to stop the use of slave labor and violence in the extraction of these minerals. For that, consumers may need to supply even greater pressure.
A massive hit to the bottom line may make them listen to customers' concerns. But is there a better, more helpful way, to address this problem?
However, this may be something of forlorn hope as there will always be unscrupulous buyers looking to make a profit.
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.
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,it is that new jobs will appear in the aftermath. Of course, many of these new jobs pay less than the jobs they replace.
So, 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 to worse-paying 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?
What do you think?
5. Imperial versus metric measurements is the ultimate engineering controversy
We'll leave this hot potato, well, alone.
And that is a wrap.
Do any of these controversies grind your gears? What other major controversies do you think exist in the field of engineering?
Feel free to add them in the comments section.