Monday, December 28, 2009

Rising Expectations and Engineering Ethics

Most engineering is carried out in a context of complex global economic and social interactions that share certain underlying assumptions. One of these assumptions is that progress is something like a metaphysical necessity, without which great sectors of the technical economy would dry up and blow away. Why is this, and is it an assumption that should be questioned?

First we should say what we mean by "progress." Progress implies a goal, or at least a desirable direction, and a way to measure movement in that direction. For a simple example, take the memory capacity of flash drives, the little pen-size USB-connected memory sticks that have become ubiquitous in the last four or five years. I think the first one I bought had a capacity of 512 megabytes and cost somewhere around fifty bucks, but I doubt if you can even buy one so small today. Now, a few years later, you can get 16-GB (gigabyte) drives, a factor of 32 larger, for only $27, and next year I expect the price of those will drop and new ones with even more capacity will come along. In this case, progress is easy to measure. Everybody agrees that having more memory on a single flash drive is better, assuming there are no compensating disadvantages such as slower access time, etc. So other things being equal, people will want to buy a drive with more memory over one with less, and the price structure of the market reflects this.

There's nothing automatic or inevitable about the rising memory capacity of flash drives. It's part of a great "roadmap" that the semiconductor industry has planned for many years, a kind of coordinated progress chart that guides research and development, plant investment, and related matters. As long as the underlying physics allows improvements, chip makers will continue to pile more transistors onto each square millimeter, and the memory capacity or processing capabilities of the chips will rise. And the same thing is true of many other technical fields, from software to medical equipment to transportation.

It was economist Joseph Schumpeter who coined the phrase "creative destruction" to describe the way entrepreneurial capitalism constantly developed new products and services that essentially destroyed the markets for previous ones. If Company B can make a 16-GB flash drive and sell it for $27, but Company A can make only 4-GB units that cost them $40 each to make, Company A is out of luck. It has to change or die, and in most of the productive sectors of the economy, change is the rule.

From the consumer's perspective, creative destruction leads to rising expectations: the idea that next year's product will either deliver better performance for the same price, or a lower price for the same performance. In fields where this can truly happen, such as computer hardware and software, this expectation is a reasonable one. But it can lead to a kind of overgeneralization problem, an expectation that since software gets better every year (or at least more complicated), every other product ought to get better too. While great strides have taken place in the application of technology to medicine, for example, I sometimes wonder if we ask more of medical technology than it can deliver. And if we do, especially in the United States, that may explain why our health-care costs are such a large fraction of our total gross domestic product.

From an individual engineer's perspective, creative destruction leads to a kind of employent instability or instant obsolescence that is hard to avoid. Last June, a company in Austin called Silicon Laboratories announced the development of a TV tuner on a chip. Despite the integration of every other part of a digital TV, until recently the "front end" that dealt with the wideband RF signals to be demodulated took the form of a tuner "can" of hand-assembled coils, capacitors, and other components. These tuners were expensive and bulky, but the problems of designing a TV tuner in a CMOS IC were too daunting until a team of about fifteen engineers met the challenge and succeeded. I recently saw a photo of the team, and judging by their faces, not one of the engineers was much over 40. Nobody had gray hair, but a few were bald. To an old geezer like me (I turned 56 last week), this says that certain engineering activities are practically limited to younger engineers who are conversant with technologies and approaches that are generally too hard to master if you are older. I'm sure there are some conventional "can" TV tuner engineers out there who see the handwriting on the wall, or the Silicon Labs chip in the catalog, and are wondering what they'll do next.

Despite the problems this assumption of progress may cause, I'm not sure there's a viable alternative. The grand (and deadly) experiment of managed economies in the old Soviet Union and China showed that market forces are pretty necessary if you are going to have a thriving, up-to-date economy that doesn't limit freedom in a profound way. The few remaining little pockets of traditional Communism around the world (mainly North Korea and Cuba) show by contrast what a dismal thing it is to "freeze" an economy by legal fiat. On a small scale, communities such as the Amish and Mennonites have shown that an organized and thoughtful limitation of new technology is consistent with what appears to be a fruitful, if circumscribed, way of life, although such communities are sort of parasites on the larger unrestricted economy that surrounds them. That is to say, if some bizarre tragedy occurred and killed everybody in the world outside the few Amish and Mennonite communities in the U. S., they would have a much harder time surviving on their own, although they might stand a better chance than the rest of us.

So on balance, it looks like rising expectations and creative destruction are things that we'll have with us for a long time. They are the economic engines that drive many industries, and while we should never take the assumption of progress for granted, we should acknowledge the good it has done.

Sources: I consulted the Wikipedia article on creative destruction. A news release from Silicon Laboratories describing their TV-tuner chip can be found at

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