In a nutshell, engineering is making certain simplifying assumptions of the real world and building a piece of technology by combining separate parts to build a functional whole. During this engineering process, the degrees of freedom, that is, the play between its components is reduced as much as possible. This is possibly due to the limitations of the brain power or comprehension of the human engineer. As a result, most technology only has a few degrees of freedom. Some of the most complicated devices, like nuclear bombs only have a few dozen (this is a lot).
The 20th century saw many fields get engineered. I will discuss three of them. The first field to receive the engineering treatment was the socio-economic system. As a result, communism was a new design that led to enormous suffering. Fascism was another. I am not going to go into details, but socio-economic engineering are all based on the idea that humans are essentially “particles”, and so if we have enough particles and we know the “microphysics”, that is, the laws governing individual particles, we can predict, design and create large scale human behavior. Some of these designs failed. Other designs have so far been successful. If you wonder why you prefer particular brands, you are the result of one of the successful experiments.
The next field to be subjected to engineering was physics. The result was the nuclear bomb and the power to wipe out human civilization. Through a fantastic show of diplomatic skill, game theory, and forced collaborations, politicians avoided getting us all killed. This was possible because there were few degrees of freedom; here, that is, few nations had the bomb. Now that more and more nations become club members, the problem is getting more and more complex. I hope it does not become unsolvable. Although the inventors of the bomb knew the consequences, game theory clearly states, that the risk of the other guy “cheating” when you don’t is much too large. Therefore I fully support development of nuclear weapons … on our side, because the human level of civic mindedness is too low. To put it in other words. I am sympathetic to the anti-nuclear crowd, but the problem is that I do not think that the anti-nuclear crowd of the opposing side is anymore effective than ours. It’s the complete picture that counts. Now, despite scientists refusing to take responsibility for their actions of creating the bomb, politicians avoided mutual destruction.
This was not the case for financial engineering. Financial engineering is the synthesis of new contracts by combining existing contracts. Like with all technology, it’s use depends more on the user than on the inherent qualities of the technology. Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. Incidentally, people kill more people with cars than with guns. I digress. Financial engineering could have been used to greatly reduce risk in the system. Unfortunately, the choice was made to use this protection to “fight bigger wars”. This is not much different than from what happens in collision sports (Without any direct knowledge, I get the impression that Wall Street recruit a large number of ex-jocks?) when better protective technology is introduced, like helmets and padding. Better protection does not lead to safer play. Rather it leads to more risk taking. While the small injuries are reduced, it tends to increase the likelihood of rare but dangerous events, which were previously avoided by playing it safe, as the smaller injuries were bad enough. This is the problem whenever the goal is to win.
The reason nuclear war did not break out was that there could be no winner.
The next field to be engineering is biology. Whether this will lead to the equivalent of communism (like Darwinism lead to eugenics in Germany, the US, and many other “scientific” countries), or the equivalent of everybody having his own bomb is a matter to be determined. Imagine that the genetic kits that Freeman Dyson imagines being part of science fair projects being used to make something similar to, oh say, a computer virus. A genetic virus constructed by an clever teenager lacking the wisdom and full intelligence/appreciation of the consequences of his actions. The difference between biology and computing is categorical. A computer virus may destroy your files. A genetic virus might destroy your food, or your life. It is in my opinion a huge problem, when technology is invented by people with little wisdom (in general anyone younger than 60) when it comes to human experience and have that technology be used by the very same. An pragmatic solution would be the nuclear solution: Let the young invent the technology, but hand over its use to the wisest generation.
Perhaps there are some technologies that should not be used. Unfortunately, it would seem that humans have not attained the required degree of wisdom to make such choices in advance. However, to our defense, as humans, it seems we are able to make the right choices reactively when we are standing on edge of the cliff. Let’s just hope that this strategy of no foresight will keep working for a long time.
Originally posted 2009-08-09 00:23:03.