Engineering needs input from humanities

Elanor Huntington is readying herself for the imminent arrival of the next world-changing engineering discipline, one she believes will overlap the realms of the built and digital worlds.“Engineering is not a static thing,” she says. “There have been new disciplines emerging over time for centuries, and I think there’s a new one coming.”

The first female dean of engineering and computer science at the Australian National University and a professor researching quantum teleportation, Huntington wants more humanities scholars to consider an engineering career to broaden the human foundations of the new digitally mastered world.

“In the end, what engineering is about is using your mastery of science and maths to solve human problems,” she says.

“These days, that means understanding how our interactions with each other are going to be mediated by technology.”

Descended from a line of engineers and information technology specialists, Huntington is at home in the world of super-equations and nanoparticles, but she now wants to know more about the other side of scholarship and she is putting herself through a reading bootcamp in the liberal arts.

Named after the golden, star-shaped flower that grew in the Elvish fields of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Huntington has a farsighted vision of humanity’s future, and she wants to do her bit to ensure humanists have a say in the way the world will be shaped.

“We need politicians and business tycoons who understand enough about the way that technology is changing our world to make good, quality decisions,” she says. “It’s the world that we’re building around us, and that doesn’t just mean the physical built world now, it means our digital lives as well. Look around you. Pretty much nothing that you can see right now occurs in nature”.

The new engineering schools of thought will also be central to keeping scholars in the argument, and to that end the ANU has recruited the famed anthropologist and computer scientist Genevieve Bell (a thinker who lived in the technology mecca of Silicon Valley for decades, and who delivered the 2017 ABC Boyer Lectures) to join the engineering and computer science school under Huntington to ponder the potential of the new field.

“We’ve basically convinced Genevieve Bell to come home to create the next engineering discipline,” Huntington says. “We don’t know the name of it yet; we’re still trying to figure that out. It’s the one that brings together artificial intelligence, people, and all the physical systems that hang off that.”

These scholars will also try and push the more traditional engineering fields up a layer, she adds, to consider what it means when different systems are combined, and how the new world of instantaneous communication can fit into the new order.

Huntington argues that new engineering disciplines have emerged through history at times of simultaneous economic, ­societal and technological disruptions. The first industrial revolution, for instance, spawned the elite Ecole Polytechnique in France to corral mechanical engineering and rebuild a broken nation. Electrical engineering was invented by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology about 100 years ago, at a time of great change, when the idea was to harness the new magic of electricity and use it to change the world.

The new discipline of this age will be the product of massive digital turmoil created by the new technologies and digital forums such as social media, she adds — consider the effects on Brexit, the US presidential election, the scandals of Cambridge Analytica, the data mining of private information, and the ever faster whirlwind of digital newsbites.

“Everyone thinks engineers are this elite corps of people who are just a little bit disconnected from the world and from understanding people,” Huntington says.

“That’s the thing I’m really focused on changing this time round, because of all the stuff that’s going on with the internet and with social media and the fact that we live mixed digital and physical lives these days.

“That way that we as human beings interact with each other is mediated by technology, and we have people making technology who do not understand people. That’s a problem.”

She would like the next theoretical engineering discipline to include deep anthropological research and a thorough understanding of humans and the way they engage with one another.

“People are writing software and they have no idea how people interact with each other, they have limited understanding about how people interact with each other through the software, and they’re just trying stuff,” she says.

“It’s like releasing cane toads into the wild: they’ve got no idea.”

Researchers and scholars with more of an interest in the humanities should consider boosting their science and maths skills in order to bring their arts abilities to the table, Huntington suggests.

These days, civil engineers don’t need to be able to calculate for themselves how strong a beam needs to be hold up a railway tunnel roof, she points out. “We have computers that can do that.

“But they do need to be able to calculate, in a systems sense, how to get a couple of million people home safely from one side of the city to another, and there’s maths that sits under that.

And in 10 years’ time they will have to calculate how to get a couple of hundred million people home safely from one side of the city to the other.”

So scholars who have a deep interest in people and how and why they do what they do, and how those needs can be met by technology are essential to help shape the world of the future, Huntington believes.

And she says these people should have a rounded understanding of science, maths and the humanities.

The false dichotomy that insists students should be either maths or humanities scholars with an inherent bent towards one or the other is the product of deeply ingrained and often gender-specific traditions no longer relevant to today’s world, Huntington believes.

The conditioning that children often get even before they can count or spell benefits no one, she adds, and this often means little girls turn away from science and maths before they understand whether or not they have an aptitude or interest in the world of numbers, elements and weights and measures.

The stereotype of male engineers is a powerful one and the image of a bloke with a hard hat who builds bridges and roads remains stubbornly in place: the idea of a modern engineer.

In the end, this can result in Australian universities being forced to advertise women-only academic positions in their engineering departments in an attempt to ensure a modicum of gender equality.

“We are socialised into this,” Huntington says.

“It starts at the age of five. The number of women who manage to stick it out and stay in these disciplines is relatively small, so the supply side is not great.”

Yet the new engineering discipline, encompassing the digital and built worlds, will require leaps of imagination to even guess at potential ramifications and possibly devastating knock-on effects of various technological developments.

It will also require all the talent it can get — of both genders, she believes.

“Just because you can build it, doesn’t mean you should,” Huntington says.