Monday, January 06, 2014
Doing Good Versus Making Good: Engineers and Charitable Works
A reader recently called my attention to some of the inventions sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, an organization that funds things like new vaccines and other technologies that can save lives. I will confess that I wasn't that interested in condoms made with graphene and toilets that turn solid waste into electricity, but one item did catch my eye: Bill Gates is a founder of something called the Giving Pledge. And it got me to thinking about the question of how to do good with an engineering career, if such is your intention.
First, the Giving Pledge. It's not for everybody; you have to be a billionaire to join. But once you qualify, membership is simple: you simply pledge to give away half your wealth, either in your lifetime or in your will. Some members you may have heard of who made their money in techie ways include Craig McCaw (cellphones), Larry Ellison (co-founder of Oracle Computers), Steve Case (America OnLine), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), and Elon Musk (you name it, he's tried it, but most lately Tesla Motors). The Giving Pledge simply codifies in a somewhat more palatable form what famed nineteenth-century American steel industrialist Andrew Carnegie said he would try to do: give away all his wealth before he died. Putting it off till post mortem is more attractive to some, but all of these folks deserve credit for publicly devoting half their wealth to charity, whether they will be here to enjoy the results or not.
That is certainly one way to try to make the world a better place with an engineering career: first get filthy rich and then give some of your money away. For those with the talent and good fortune to do such a thing, this is certainly one path. But another approach is simply to create and grow a profit-making engineering-based enterprise in the first place, as long as you choose the right one.
Founding a chain of meth labs, for instance, is both technical and highly profitable, but nobody would suggest that it helps the world's net well-being, even if you turn around and make the Giving Pledge with your ill-gotten gains. No, the engineering enterprise you profit from must be beneficial, at least on balance. In my experience, certain types of engineering work tend to be more benign than others. Take communications technologies, for example: cellphones (mobile phones, as they are known through most of the world) are a case in point. Helping people talk to other people they want to talk with is a good thing the vast majority of the time. Yes, it can lead to abusive telephone solicitation, but for people who have never before had access to a cellphone, the occasional advertising call they may get is worth the value of being able to get in touch with the rest of the world. This explains why cell networks spread so fast even in relatively poor countries: the infrastructure is much cheaper than the old landline phones, and the technology is easy to use and inexpensive to the user. And simply by growing their business model and trying to make a profit, cellphone companies have brought the blessings of telecommunications to millions who otherwise would remain in isolation.
What if, like myself, you have the entrepreneurial abilities of a snail and couldn't make a lemonade stand turn a profit, but would still like to benefit the world somehow in an engineering capacity? There are many non-profit organizations that can use engineers as both volunteers and paid employees to do good works of various kinds. Some of them have religious affiliations, while others are simply dedicated to serving populations that otherwise could not afford technical solutions to problems that for-profit organizations could provide. Two such organizations I have had some dealings with personally are Engineers Without Borders and JAARS. Engineers Without Borders, which has many chapters worldwide, engages students and other engineering specialists to do development work in areas such as water supplies and sanitation, solar power to rural areas, and communications in remote regions. JAARS (an acronym which originally derived from "Jungle Aviation and Radio Service") is a service branch of Wycliffe Bible Translators, and recruits computer geeks, telecomm specialists, aviation pilots, mechanics, and others with technical skills to support teams of Bible translators around the world, who often deal with obscure isolated tribes that need basic technical services as well.
So there are at least three distinct paths to doing good by doing engineering: become a techie billionaire and give away your wealth, start or contribute to an engineering enterprise or industry that is more benign than malign, and find an engineering organization explicitly dedicated to doing good rather than just making money. I find that this list leaves out what I do, namely, educating future engineers. To find out whether this is a good work, you'd have to ask my students. In general, though, conveying knowledge is a benefit to humanity, and so I find I can sleep most nights and look myself in the mirror in the morning, as long as I don't mind looking at a sleepy old man.
While there are exceptions, I think most engineering careers do more good than harm. The exceptions are what we usually think about when engineering ethics comes to mind: the explosions, accidents, and other disasters that can happen when people try to do something good with technology, and slip up. But such problems should not blind us to the fact that even if you don't become a billionaire and make the Giving Pledge, or join a nonprofit engineering organization, your work in engineering can make the world a better place. But don't just assume it does: pay enough attention to find out whether it does, and if it doesn't, maybe you should do something about it.