The future of engineering needs ethicists

1 Mar 2021

Image: © Cagkan/

Reflecting on the state of engineering for Engineers Week, Elaine Burke writes that ethicists need to draw the lines in the sand now for the engineers of the future.

As the 15th annual Engineers Week in Ireland kicked off over the weekend, the leading industry body in the country repeated its call to generate a strong STEM pipeline. Caroline Spillane, director general of Engineers Ireland, said that the next generation of graduates will need skills in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) in order to drive Ireland’s post-pandemic recovery.

“STEM skills have tangible, practical and immediate applications for our daily lives,” said Spillane. “During STEPS Engineers Week, we can help to inspire our young people to explore the exciting world of STEM and the limitless opportunities a career in engineering can offer, so that they too can be equipped to respond to societal needs in the future.”

But for the future that these engineers will build to be secure and stable, we must not forget the importance of intersecting the humanities with engineering. Particularly, engineering needs ethics.

Read more Engineers Week stories.

Each year, Engineers Week on highlights the many flavours of this broad discipline. Anything you make use of in your daily life has been touched by engineering. The buildings we enter, the roads we travel on and the bridges we cross, of course. But also the chemicals engineered for cleaning your house and the processes used to produce and package the ready-made meals in your fridge. The electronics we interact with daily plus the telecommunications networks that connect them and the electricity that powers them. Not to mention the human-made devices keeping people alive whether in an ICU or walking around with a pacemaker.

In its essence, engineering is the application of science to building and design. While science is about discovering the world around us, engineering builds it anew using the knowledge of that discovery. You can see this most clearly in how modes of transport mimic forms found in nature and in how medical devices take their lead from the human body.

Science explores the world around us. Engineering shapes it. This makes it an incredibly powerful force in our lives. Which is why it must have strict checks and balances.

‘If we end up careening toward catastrophe in the climate crisis, we may well want to have tested the emergency brakes’

Many engineering bodies have established codes of practice and codes of ethics that serve to guide engineers. While we have long-established practices of engineering ethics to protect public health, safety and welfare, there are new frontiers of engineering presenting complex ethical challenges.

In Sweden, for example, a world-first geoengineering project is drawing controversy. A team from Harvard University would like to run a test drive for solar geoengineering from Esrange Space Center in Kiruna. Their proposal is to distribute tiny particles into the stratosphere that will reflect more of the sun’s heat back into space, and thus help to mitigate global heating. As with many engineering processes, it is inspired by nature, mimicking the way in which the tons of sulphur dioxide emitted by volcanic eruptions have been seen to depress global temperatures in the aftermath.

Investigating a climate cooling technique that could have worldwide repercussions has to be approached with extreme caution. So far, researchers have only been able to evaluate the potential of geoengineering using computer models or lab-scale mock-ups of the stratosphere. To unleash something on the Earth that could impact everyone for years to come is a daunting prospect, and has many detractors.

Even principal investigator Prof Frank Keutsch has reservations about the project. Speaking to MIT Technology Review, he compared geoengineering as a solution to the climate crisis to the use of opiates in pain management. Without sufficient research and precise control, it can lead to a crisis of its own making.

Keutsch would very much prefer we don’t need to use geoengineering, but with time running out on cutting carbon emissions, we may find ourselves in a desperate situation calling for extreme measures. If we end up careening toward catastrophe in the climate crisis, past the point of no return, we may well want to have tested the emergency brakes before we deploy them.

‘With Big Tech taking the lead in the development of AI, private interests are steadfastly centred above the public good’

The time dedicated to the profound ethical considerations of Keutsch’s geoengineering project has delayed progress, and it may well never take off if these concerns cannot be addressed. This is the only ethical way to approach such world-changing engineering.

We may have been better served as a global society if the same caution had been applied to the rampant spread of artificial intelligence.

AI is a feat of engineering expected to heavily influence and shape our future. And to embed such a thing into important, essential social systems will take an inordinate amount of trust.

Before we can trust in AI, we need to pass it through the rigours of ethical consideration. However, with Big Tech taking the lead in the development of AI, private interests are steadfastly centred above the public good.

One only needs to look at the mess happening over at Google’s AI ethics division to see how these competing interests can quickly run aground. As it stands, a powerful, influential tech company trusted two people to lead its AI ethics division and then reportedly turned on them when their criticism of those ethics hit too close to home. Whatever your position on the matter, the optics are terrible.

‘It’s not just private companies that need an ethics review. Governments, too, are abusing power with novel technologies’

Be it geoengineering or artificial intelligence, the new large-scale innovations set to shape and influence our lives need to be held up to scrutiny just as the buildings we inhabit and bridges we traverse must be vetted down to their nuts and bolts. Otherwise the world we build will collapse in on us, causing immeasurable harm.

Google’s high-profile in-fighting about ethics in AI is just one struggle among many to reign in technology with ethical considerations. And it’s not just private companies that need an ethics review. Governments, too, are abusing power with novel technologies. The most horrifying current example is the use of surveillance technology and facial recognition software by Chinese authorities to oppress the Uighur population.

When the potential for abuse of nuclear power was made clear, we had the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Rather than await impending disaster to prompt action, ethicists need to draw the lines in the sand now for the engineers of the future.

We must be careful of letting the engineering get ahead of the science, and away from ethics. If there isn’t enough research to back up the safety of a world-changing geoengineering project, it needs to wait. Similarly, we must be more cautious in rolling out AI technologies until more is understood about flaws and risks of abuse.

With AI, we shouldn’t be looking to build black boxes that take unprecedented control of our lives without oversight. At the very least, we should be working toward explainable AI, which can be better interrogated while we continue to learn from this technology’s deployment.

We need both ethics and science to lead the engineering of our future. And what that bodes, perhaps, is a new kind of Renaissance thinker.

There has long been a trend of adding the arts to the acronym Spillane used to introduce Engineers Week. STEAM is one catch-all phrase urging the blend of humanities into STEM. A recent joke on Twitter posited the new acronym of STEAMed HAMS: science, technology, engineering, art, maths, humanities, anthropology, music and such. I appreciate the Simpsons reference, but also the sentiment.

For something as diverse and widely applicable as engineering, we need those involved in the discipline to be just as multi-faceted.

Want stories like this and more direct to your inbox? Sign up for Tech Trends, Silicon Republic’s weekly digest of need-to-know tech news.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.