Event Recap: Engineering Our Future

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"Engineering Our Future" was held June 9, 2011 at the Directors Guild of America.What do you think of when you hear the word “engineer?” Does it conjure up images of pocket protectors and slide rules? Does it evoke labs festooned with panels of blinking lights and spaghetti wiring over which are hunched socially awkward men in white lab coats? On the popular sitcom The Big Bang Theory, the character Howard Wolowitz is often derided by his colleagues because he is “just an engineer.” It seems that at some point in the not so recent past, our understanding of what an engineer is and does became somewhat skewed.

Engineers (the term is derived from the Latin root ingenium, meaning “cleverness”) are scientists, but unlike scientists who participate in basic research, engineers design the mechanisms and materials others only theorize about, ingeniously transforming the hypothetical ruminations of their colleagues into practical applications. The engineers are the ones who roll up their sleeves and build others’ dreams. “Science seeks to understand the world as it is,” professor and author Henry Petroski said. “Only engineering can change it.”

Such misconceptions can hardly be applied to three engineers who participated in the Science and Entertainment Exchange’s most recent panel discussion: “Engineering Our Future,” presented at the Directors Guild of America in partnership with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers-USA (IEEE-USA). We live in a world of nearly limitless possibility. What was once deemed impossible is now a matter of routine. What was once unthinkable is now everyday reality. This fact was nowhere better expressed than in the evening’s triumvirate presentations, designed specifically to highlight how the intersection of science and entertainment enriches both pursuits.

Jon Spaihts asks Randii Wessen a question during the event's Q&A session.Frances Arnold, the Dickinson Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering, and Biochemistry at Caltech, creates new biological molecules and organisms by forcing their evolution in the laboratory. Maja Mataric, professor of Computer Science, Neuroscience, and Pediatrics at the University of Southern California, develops socially assistive robots that provide personalized human–machine interaction for those suffering from autism, stroke, Alzheimer’s, and other debilitating ailments. Randii R. Wessen, the Deputy Manager of the Project Formulation Office at NASA/Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has, for the last 27 years, worked on multiple spacecraft searching for Earth-like planets around other stars. The evening was moderated by Jon Spaihts, the screenwriter for Ridley Scott’s highly anticipated Alien prequel, Prometheus, and a filmmaker who both understands the value and uses of the language of science to inform his storytelling. 

Engineers like Arnold build things with organic matter rather than with steel and wiring. “I am utterly dazzled by the natural world,” she told the filmmakers gathered in the DGA auditorium. “I began my career by studying astronomy, but found that I didn’t need to look to the stars for wonder or magnificent complexity—it was all around me in the cellular world. I now study how nature solves problems so I can then figure out how to solve others.” 

Arnold stated that a proper sense of humility is crucial when studying “the symphony of life.” Biologists, she said, “must accept our ignorance and use evolution as our friend to go places we can’t even imagine. We only discovered DNA 50 years ago, genetic engineering 30 years ago, and in the last 10 years, how to synthesize DNA. What lies just around the corner? Nature has been breeding life for millions of years and we are only just beginning. We are doing what nature does—we are just faster and more targeted. Think about it—we can engineer evolution!”

Mataric informed the audience that intimate human and robotic interaction is not in some far off distant future, but right here and now. “I began my career as many in robotics do—working for the Defense Department. But then I had kids and everything changed. What you do is easy, but why you do it is your legacy. I decided I wanted to make robots that can help people.” 

Robots, Mataric said, should not replace human beings, but they can fill critical gaps and augment care. They are perfect for assisting those with autism, stroke rehab, Alzheimer’s, and dementia because they are tireless and minimize embarrassment. “The thing that’s great about technology is how specifically we can tailor it to individual needs,” Mataric said while showing videos of robots and human patients interacting. “People respond to co-present, physical caregivers. They form relationships, even with machines.” It’s not important that the robot appear human, Mataric said, observing that the closer robots resemble their human counterparts, the more people are often distracted by and expect more from them. “Personality is far more essential. Believable behavior is far more important than believable looks.”

From left to right: Jon Spaihts, Frances Arnold, Maja Mataric, Randii Wessen.Wessen, who quoted Robert Goddard when he said, “the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow,” said that scientists give us a glimpse of the future. He profiled four future unmanned missions—the Mars rovers Athlete and Curiosity, the Titan lander, and Cryobot/Hyrdrobot. NASA and JPL, Wessen explains, are not interested in repeating the past, but want to boldly go and “do those things that have never been done before. When it comes to space exploration, we’re not even out of the driveway. We’re only exploring things in our front lawn.”

For his part, moderator Jon Spaihts, a self-admitted “geek since I was a fetus,” was like a kid in a candy store. “There is a two-sided exchange going on here. Obviously, the more that filmmakers like myself learn from scientists, the more stories we find. On the other hand, science is one of the higher functions of civilization, and culture is the engine of that enterprise. There is no louder voice in culture than entertainment. In many ways, science depends on storytelling. We can either let science flourish or we can let it molder.” Scientists, Spaihts said, have the opportunity to enflame and inspire. “It’s more than just getting good science into stories. The greater impact is to light the spark, to draw people into science. I hope this auditorium is filled with storytellers whose imaginations are magnified by what they hear tonight and think about things like chemistry and robots in ways they never have before. I know that these sorts of fertile conversations have directly influenced my own storytelling.”

Wessen agreed. “The importance of a night like tonight is that it allows writers and filmmakers access to a rich world they can then integrate, making for far more compelling stories. Everyone I work with at JPL is a Star Trek or Star Wars fan, or a fan of some sort of science fiction show precisely because that sort of entertainment has the ability to fire the imagination. Stories with solid science are invaluable. Scientists need to be good storytellers to get their message across. It’s not enough to research and explore, we must then pass on that knowledge. Society only moves forward when we learn. And any time you open people’s eyes to possibilities other than their own, we all benefit.”

“Science is a limitless source of ideas and engineering is both cool and fun,” Arnold said, perfectly summarizing the evening. “Filmmakers like those here tonight need to spread the word to young people that engineering gives you the tools to change the world!”

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.