What the Next 100 Years of Engineering May Look Like

10/26/2017 12:54 pm ET
Photodisc/Getty Images
Photodisc/Getty Images

What new disciplines of engineering will be created in the next 100 years? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Thomas Ulrich, Electrical engineering grad student at Stanford University, on Quora:

This might be a bit of a disappointment, but I think engineers will spend the next 100 years mostly ignoring new discoveries in fundamental physics.

I can say that because we already know quite a lot about the physical laws that apply to everyday conditions. Maxwell's equations, Newton's law of gravitation, quantum mechanics, and special and general relativity have been tested incredibly thoroughly. We can say with great confidence that they (along with plenty of approximations and rules of thumb, of course) do a great job of predicting phenomena in literally all environments engineers care about.

That means that any fundamentally new physical phenomena that are discovered in the future will only appear in extreme conditions, like black holes, neutron stars, or the Big Bang. As much as engineers love talking about black holes and neutron stars, we also recognize that they will have no practical applications for the foreseeable future. We don’t need a theory of quantum gravity to design computers, rockets, or even fusion reactors.

That said, there's a huge amount of room to discover new practically relevant phenomena that arise from existing physical laws. We won't discover the electron, but we will find new ways to use electrons in computers. We won't discover the atom, but we will use atoms to create new materials.

Here are a few specific areas where I think physical discoveries will open up new vistas in engineering in the next 50–100 years.

  • Applied quantum mechanics will continue to grow in the near future, possibly leading to one or more entirely new engineering disciplines. We already have a few degree-granting programs with names like "engineering physics," but this is a fairly broad label. Perhaps something like "quantum engineering" would be appropriate (it also sounds cool). Engineers in such a field could work on chip fabrication, quantum computers, cryptography, and nanotechnology, among other things.
  • Nuclear fusion will likely become a viable energy source sometime in the next few decades. However, while this development will be widely cheered, engineers will react more cautiously than most of the public. Fusion reactors will not be profitable for many years due to extremely high reactor costs and the declining cost of alternatives like solar power. When commercial fusion reactors finally do start to come online, they will be designed by physicists working with nuclear engineers, electrical engineers, and other professionals from existing engineering disciplines.
  • The discovery of new high-temperature superconductors, topological insulators, and 2D materials will dramatically change many subfields within materials science, electrical engineering, and chemical engineering. For now, the ramifications of this are hard to foresee. Again, though, I doubt that a new field of engineering will be created.
  • We will find new ways of using energetic particles to treat cancer and other diseases. But these therapies will be developed by biomedical, electrical, and chemical engineers. Again, no new field of engineering will be needed.
  • Genetic engineering will grow dramatically in importance in the next 100 years, maybe even becoming an independent field. However, I expect that the most important discoveries that make this possible will take place in chemistry rather than physics.
  • Quantum computers will require computer scientists to develop entirely new ways of thinking about programming, likely leading to a completely new subfield within CS. Self-reproducing machinery might have the same effect on industrial and mechanical engineering.

Here are a few more speculative thoughts as well. Most of them will be wildly wrong, but that's part of the fun of making predictions. 

  • What if someone finds a better way of making antimatter? It's unlikely that we will ever drive antimatter-powered cars, but antimatter would be incredibly useful for spaceships... and weapons. If I had to guess, I would predict the solution will be enormous electrostatic particle accelerators smashing protons or heavy ions into metal targets in the vacuum of outer space.
  • Spacecraft could also benefit from new nuclear propulsion systems. Figuring out how to build a practical fission fragment or fusion rocket engine would be immensely useful for the exploration of the Solar System and even other stars. My wild guess on this one is that the best design will be a fission fragment rocket powered by a dusty plasma including americium or californium nanoparticles.
  • There might be ways to apply physics to optimize biological processes like photosynthesis and protein production. One could imagine engineers using such discoveries to increase production of food and medicine using genetic engineering.
  • New discoveries in quantum mechanics might enable exceptionally dense energy storage or ultra-powerful lasers, either of which could have some interesting consequences.
  • A true 3D midair display would be really cool. Maybe physicists could contribute by developing better femtosecond lasers. The ultimate goal would be a system something like this one.

And of course, despite what I said earlier, it's not completely inconceivable that we will see some currently unimaginable new discovery that will upend all of engineering. For example, what if someone figures out how to extract energy from the vacuum somehow? (There are plenty of good reasons to think that's not possible, but one could argue that it’s not completely forbidden by currently known laws of physics.) One should be careful about betting against human ingenuity.

With all that said, I think the biggest changes in engineering in the next 100 years will have little to do with physics. There is a very strong general trend in engineering towards automation and the use of increasingly higher-level abstractions. I see little reason for that to change. Future engineers will have access to highly automated smart design tools that we can only dream of today. They will need to become deeply familiar with programming, software engineering, and data science. In return, even small teams will be able to develop and validate new ideas with incredible speed, sometimes moving directly into mass production without ever making a physical prototype. It will be really exciting to see what new technology this makes possible.

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