Today’s Engineers Are as Powerful as World Leaders

Founders of Amazon, Microsoft, and SpaceX are successfully tackling issues typically handled by governments

3 August 2017

In the May Proceedings of the IEEE, the journal’s editor in chief, H. Joel Trussell, discussed an article written in 1962 by Robert Watson-Watt, an IEEE Fellow. Watson-Watt had forecasted that someday scientists and engineers no longer would just be tapped to be consultants to government leaders but would eventually hold high offices themselves. In “Should Engineers Be on Tap or on Top?” Trussell stated that only a handful of engineers have led countries, including China, Germany, and Singapore. But, he wrote, “for the most part Watson-Watt’s dream of scientists and engineers being both on top and on tap has not come to pass.”

I disagree. Engineers are wielding more power than ever before. Several are among the most influential leaders today. They are just as powerful, if not more so, than presidents and prime ministers.

The leaders include Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Bill Gates and Paul Allen of Microsoft, Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX, and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. They’re tackling issues typically handled by governments, including space programs, transportation, health care, and education. And they’re doing it more efficiently, cheaper, and better than governments have. They’re spending their own money without waiting for a government official to tap them on the shoulder requesting their help.

SPACE EXPLORATION

Bezos and Musk, who is an IEEE honorary member, have formed commercial space companies. Blue Origin, founded by Bezos, expects to start offering suborbital flights next year aboard its reusable capsule module, powered by its New Shepard rocket. Musk’s SpaceX announced in February that next year the company will fly two tourists past the surface of the moon. SpaceX also is developing a reusable rocket to fly passengers to Mars. Those flights won’t start for another decade, Musk estimates, adding that the price for that ticket will be about US $200,000. He outlined his plans for a self-sustaining Martian city last year during the International Astronautical Congress.

The company has also developed the ability to reuse rockets, in particular the autonomous control systems needed to guide a used booster traveling at hypersonic speeds back to Earth with pinpoint accuracy. The autonomous control system allows SpaceX to reuse the rocket-booster stages of its Falcon 9 rocket, which resupplies the International Space Station with cargo. That used to be NASA’s job until the United States retired its space shuttle program in 2011. SpaceX’s 12th mission, scheduled to take place this month, is to take thousands of kilograms of cargo and several science experiments to astronauts and cosmonauts on the station.

TRANSPORTATION SYSTEMS

Musk is also thinking up ways to improve traffic on Earth with new transportation systems. Both of his proposals result from his frustration over traffic jams and the amount of money the government spends trying to fix them.

Two companies and hundreds of students are working on turning Musk’s vision of speedy travel through a system of tubes and maglev trains, known as a hyperloop, into reality.

Musk also recently launched the Boring Co. to dig networks of tunnels deep in the ground to help speed up traffic. His plan is to reduce the expected $1 billion price tag of building such tunnels by replacing existing diesel tunnel-boring machines with electric versions, and by designing a machine that can dig and reinforce a tunnel at the same time.

According to the company’s website, there is virtually no U.S. investment in tunneling R&D, nor in many other forms of construction. The construction industry, the site says, is one of the only sectors of the U.S. economy that has not improved its productivity in the past 50 years.

HEALTH CARE AND EDUCATION

Allen founded the Allen Institute for Brain Science to accelerate neuroscience research. It’s doing so through new data, knowledge, and tools. For example, in collaboration with scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, researchers at the institute announced in May that they had identified a specific group of neurons that control sleep. The institute in June announced improved tools for gathering information about the brain’s response to visual stimuli.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is working on improving people’s health and well-being by developing drugs and diagnostic technologies for HIV, malaria, polio, tuberculosis, and other conditions. To eradicate polio, for example, the foundation is trying to develop more effective vaccines and accelerate vaccination campaigns and routine immunizations.

The foundation aims to use technology to help educate U.S. students more effectively. It’s exploring new educational models that could deliver personalized education to more students and at less cost than the current government-funded system. The foundation supports new methods such as game-based learning, which generates data about students’ progress and challenges them with what they need to learn next once they demonstrate mastery of a topic.

Zuckerberg founded the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative with his wife, Priscilla Chan. Its programs also focus on education and health care, and it also supports personalized learning programs.

The initiative announced in July that it will contribute $10 million to the University of California, San Francisco, to help fund an effort to merge data on 15 million patients across five California medical campuses into one database, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The goal is to detect patterns in disease development and to allow doctors to devise better treatment plans.

Do you think society is better off when engineers are in power?

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