Robert Lucky’s mother was born in 1902 and died in 1998. She grew up on a farm in Virginia with no electricity, no radio, and no telephone. Yet she lived to see a man walk on the moon and the rise of the Internet. “What an incredible century of change,” Lucky told the forum attendees. “I was proud as an engineer of what we were able to accomplish.”
Will the next century see the same amount of progress, or will technology yield diminishing returns to society’s problems? “I don’t know,” said Lucky, but the list compiled by the National Academy of Engineering in 2003 of the 20 greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century offers some clues.
PREDICTABLE AND UNPREDICTABLE INVENTIONS
Fourteen years into the 20th century, how many of the items on that list already existed or could be foreseen?, Lucky asked.
In 1914 four of the top five items on the list were already well under way. Electrification, the top item on the list, was occurring rapidly, and AC power had become prominent. Henry Ford brought out the Model T in 1908, so the automobile, the second item on the list, already existed. The Wright brothers flew their first plane at Kitty Hawk in 1903, so the airplane, at number 3, had already been invented. And electronics, the fifth item on the list, became especially prominent when radio transmissions were used during the 1912 sinking of the Titanic.
Other items on the list could be foreseen with greater or lesser accuracy. The development of the automobile suggested the possibility of constructing the highway system (number eleven). Electrification
pointed toward the invention of household appliances (number 15). The mechanization of farming (number 7) was likely given the other engineering achievements of the time.
Other inventions, however, would have been difficult or impossible to foresee. Computers (number 8) and space travel (number 12) might have been vaguely foreseeable. But other inventions came out of the blue, such as the integrated circuit, the Internet, and the laser. These unanticipated inventions “had tremendous repercussions,” said Lucky. “I haven’t seen any of that yet this century.”
THE INVENTIONS OF THE FUTURE
Today, if people on the street were asked to name the greatest engineering accomplishments of the 21st century, their most likely responses would be Google, Amazon, Twitter, and Facebook, said Lucky. But these are companies, not technologies. Today the mystique of invention has a different focus. People are enthralled not by technologies but by business ideas.
Nevertheless, engineers will continue to invent, said Lucky, and he hazarded several guesses about where invention is headed.
First, wireless technologies will become increasingly prominent, he said. “The last century was a wired century—the telephone, electrification, the cable network, optical fiber. Now we have already had this transformation into a wireless world.”
He also forecast the emergence of machine intelligence. He did not go so far as to predict that machines will become as intelligent as humans. “Human beings have something that machines aren’t going to have this next century.” But by the end of the century, intelligent machines could be widespread and doing a lot of the things that people do today.
Finally, 3D printing could transform the way products are made, Lucky predicted.
However, his most confident prediction was that inventions will continue to occur that cannot be foreseen. “Those will be the miracles that none of us, unfortunately, will be able to see.”
The Changing Tools of Engineering
When engineers of his generation came of age, said Lucky in response to a question, they did not have the computer power that young engineers have today. But they had “fertile technology” that enabled massive innovation. “It was just ready to blossom at the time that we got it. I think a lot of us were lucky in that respect.”
The world is now much more complex, and the number of engineers in the world makes it more difficult for any one engineer to stand out. “Nevertheless,” said Lucky, “I envy them the power that they have with simulations and working with computers. Some of these kids are really great with computers. It is amazing. You go talk to the kids in schools … there is a lot of genius out there.”