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Are Engineering and Technology Good For Humankind?



As Dean of the College of Engineering here at Notre Dame, people often ask me, “what does engineering have to do with our Catholic mission?” I have frequently responded that I believe that, of all the disciplines here at Notre Dame, engineering is the most Catholic, because no other discipline can impact the lives of people more than engineering. Of course, this response is a little tongue-in-cheek, as one could argue that one should not be afraid of anything that kills the body but rather those things that kill the soul, but hopefully my answer will lead them to think a little more.

Engineering is closely connected with the concept of technology that can be defined as uniquely human acts of creation. In fact, the standard elements in the engineering design process are remembered using the mnemonic device CDIO, which stands for “Conceive, Design, Implement (create), and Operate.” Every engineering design features these aspects and often in an iterative way. In this respect, engineering has a lot in common with artistic endeavors in which acts of creation are central.

Engineering and technology have arguably led to the enormous growth in human lifespan, the curing of disease, feeding the world, and many of the improvements in the quality of life for the last 250 years. The first industrial revolution occurred following the invention of steam engines by Thomas Newcomen nearly 300 years ago. James Watt, a Scotsman, enabled the mass production of them, and this in turn enabled humankind to convert the chemical energy of coal and oil into mechanical energy or power. This ability led to mechanized agriculture which in turn has led to human persons being able to increase the agricultural output per person hour by more than a 1,000 fold in these last 250 years. It is no accident that the world’s population has increased from 600 million to nearly 8 billion in that same timeframe.

In addition to dramatically increased agricultural output, biomedical technologies have led to the near eradication of many human illnesses, including diphtheria, tuberculosis, whooping cough, typhoid, polio, and SIDS. Other biotechnologies have led to persons being able to survive AIDS for a lifetime. In addition, maternal and infant mortalities have decreased dramatically (although there is still much to be done). These inventions and technologies, along with the increase of agricultural productivity, has led to an increase in life expectancy from roughly 30 years of age in 1700 to more than 70 worldwide today.

But, many will argue (as the Holy Father, Pope Francis, does in Laudato Si’), what about all the challenges with the environment and degradation of planet earth “caused” by technologies? This issue has been a common topic for the popes of the last 50 years. Paul VI in Octogesima Adveniens (on the 80th anniversary of Rerum Novarum) wrote that “due to an ill considered exploitation of nature, humanity runs the risk of destroying it [nature].” Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI have written in similar terms. Where does the truth lie? Is technology good for humankind or not?

As Ian Barbour points out in the classic text Ethics in an Age of Technology, technology is neither a liberator nor a threat, but rather an instrument of power. Of course, good persons and good governments use power in helpful and humanizing ways, but the converse is also true.

Pope Emeritus Benedict’s position on this is helpful: “human freedom is authentic only when it responds to the fascination of technology with decisions that are the fruit of moral responsibility” (Caritas in Veritate # 70). I have heard it put this way: God’s command to “exercise dominion” (Gen 1:26) was directed to nearly all of creation, but not to other humans. And St. John Paul reminds us that “a person’s rightful due is to be treated as an object of love, not as an object for use.”

So how can technology and engineering be used in a dignified and responsible way to solve the challenges of humankind in ways that treat other persons as objects of love? I have listed below five of the most important challenges of the 21st century that I believe engineers and technologists will help solve:

Develop clean forms of energy (carbon neutral) which can be implemented in inexpensive ways to generate abundant energy for all persons. It is truly remarkable to see the progress that has been made in making solar photovoltaic energy less and less expensive and more widespread. While it may take several more decades, there is reason to be hopeful that this form of energy will serve humankind (especially in the global south) for centuries to come. We should also continue to focus on wind energy, nuclear fission energy (used responsibly and exploiting recycled materials), and we should continue to develop nuclear fusion energy (the way stars and our sun generates energy). This latter form of energy is the ultimate “renewable” form of energy.

Generate biomedical technologies that treat disease and life-threatening medical conditions, including cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. For example, the latest forms of immunotherapy to treat a variety of cancers have been extraordinarily successful in driving many forms of cancer into remission.

Develop the means of inexpensively purifying water and even reclaiming drinkable water from seawater. Currently, many of these methods are quite expensive and/or involve technologies that produce byproducts or wastes that are challenging to recycle.

Develop polymers and plastics that are made from renewable sources and which can be readily recycled into component parts and new materials. While engineers and technologists have made some advances in this arena, much remains to be done.

Develop perennial plants and crops which do not require replanting each year. Currently, the world is facing serious challenges from the environmental and economic costs of annual crop production at the scale of more than 900 million tons of corn, 800 million tons of wheat, and 500 million tons of rice. Growing these crops as perennials and with sustainable fertilizers can dramatically impact the sustainability of our environment.

Certainly, none of these “grand challenges” can be accomplished without the central engagement of engineers and technologists (along with many others). Done with the proper motive, to serve humankind with love and dignity (out of love for Christ), and done with proper respect for the sustainability of our human home, engineers and technologists can continue to be among the most “mission-oriented” of Notre Dame’s graduates.

Peter Kilpatrick is the Dean of Engineering. You can contact him at pkilpat1@nd.edu.

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