A fact frequently forgotten, but unalterably true, is that everything had to be invented. This copy of the New U in your hand is made possible by the printing press, the result of a string of innovations dating back to Gutenberg’s movable-type press, itself a variation on woodblock printing, the rudiments of which can be seen in cave paintings from the dawn of human history.
This made the work on display at the Henry Samueli School of Engineering’s 2005 Industry Research Symposium, called ‘California: Prosperity Through Technology,’ all the more stunning. Held on Monday May 23 and Tuesday May 24, the symposium featured a vast array of incredibly advanced technology being shown off and discussed.
The most phenomenal thing about the symposium was not just the technology on display, but the fact that every last bit of it had a purpose.
When Nicolaos Alexopolous, Ph.D., dean of the Henry Samueli School of Engineering, said that ‘engineers make everything happen,’ he was absolutely right. From the grandest new designs for aircraft to the tiniest of RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) chips, everything shown was just another way to solve a problem.
Taking the RFID chips as an example, the problem to be solved was a simple one: is it possible to move from tracking products simply by number and type, as is currently done by using barcodes, to tracking every carton of product individually? Might it be possible in the future to track every single product can it? Not only would a new method have to be devised, it would have to be able to scan products at a much higher rate than barcode systems and handle many times more data.
The solution was to embed RFID chips in labels, but there’s much more to it than that. Each chip measures a little less than 800 microns, or .8 millimeters, on each side, and contains attachment points for wire antennae, a modem, power regulators and reprogrammable memory, in addition to the basic architecture that ties it all together. The fact that all of that hardware can be packed into a space so small is nothing less than miraculous.
A major undercurrent running through the symposium was the notion that technologies are not ends in themselves, but simply steps on the way to grander discoveries yet to come. The fact that engineers are problem-solvers kept coming into play, and it was clear that they enjoy this status greatly.
For example, when Scott McGregor, president and CEO of Broadcom, showed off some new chipsets during his speech, he did so with absolute glee. The board in question was one that would take one high-speed data line and split it so that phone, Internet and television signals could be sent around a home all from one central box. Further, the board contained hardware that would allow a person’s cell phone to immediately convert into a wireless handset for a home landline automatically, allowing a better signal and the chance for significant savings.
Answering the question before it could be asked, McGregor went on to say that the only reason astounding innovations like these aren’t commonplace is due to business models, not scientific know-how. As he said, proudly holding up the board, ‘the technology is right here.’
Broadcom’s new board was a step towards solving what McGregor referred to as the ‘Swiss dilemma.’ He suggested that up until now, companies have geared their products either like Swiss watches or Swiss army knives: to do one thing very well or to do many things not as well. As developments continue to add up, though, engineers will be increasingly able to do many things well, all on the same product. Products like camera phones are only the first sign of this sort of convergence.
In order for the engineering of new technologies to continue, more engineers will have to receive quality educations. The panel that closed the symposium addressed just this topic. The situation at hand was best expressed by Michael Aldaco, the UC’s Assistant Vice President for Student Development and Academic Services: ‘How can we accept that the fifth largest economy in the world [California’s] is too poor to solve its educational problems?’
Given the huge number of high-end engineering jobs in this state it would seem only natural to see a push towards a math and science-centered education. California, however, languishes behind most of America in those fields, and America, in turn, risks falling behind the rest of the world in the near future if it cannot produce more engineers.
That bleak future was expressed by one attendee during a Q&A session when he suggested that ‘in 20 or 30 years, America will be a country of bankers, advertisers and lawyers.’
Why should we allow this to happen? Simply put, we should not and cannot. The American spirit of innovation has been at the head of global technological revolution, and can continue to do so if we give engineers the respect and admiration they deserve. So next time you hop in your car, turn on the television or pick up a newspaper, take a moment to marvel at the technology that makes it all possible, and the engineers that make it all work.