Electrical Engineering  -- A Diminishing Role?

IEEE Spectrum Magazine, May 1998

Before this year's Superbowl, there were television ads featuring the famous Green Bay quarterback, Bret Favre.  Carelessly spinning the football with a look of supreme confidence, he says to the camera, "I can be anything I want."  Then after a momentary pause a shadow seems to cross his face, and he adds as a confessional afterthought, "Except an engineer."  A slight touch of a smile indicates that perhaps he thinks that this isn't such a bad failing to confess.

Ah well, I wouldn't do so well as a professional athlete either.  But throughout my career I've always been proud of being an electrical engineer.  Of course, there were those momentary lapses at parties when I would say that I was a scientist or mumble something unintelligible.  For the most part, however, electrical engineering has been an honorable and rewarding career for me.  But now, for the first time, I am worried about the future of our profession.

I see a trend in the downward enrollment in electrical engineering and in the changing focus of the workplace around me.  The problem is that maybe electricity doesn't matter so much any more.  The attention in technology has moved increasingly to the applications level, irrespective of the mechanisms of the physical platform that supports this level.  Maybe, I think, there is an ice age coming for classical electrical engineering.

Remember when computers were called "electronic computers?"  That was a long time ago.  Now no one seems to care that they run on electricity.  They could have gears and pulleys in there as far as most people think.  No pays any attention to what's inside today's computers, because for most of the world it's irrelevant.

I blame this all on Heathkit.  By going out of business they took the fun out of electrical stuff.  For a while after their demise it was possible to play with the hardware in home computers, but that soon ended.  I thought something else would come along, but it didn't.  A lot of the fun things disappeared into the Lilliputian mists of faceless black chips.  As keepers of those chips, though, electrical engineers were arguably among the most important people of this century.

Now, however, the huge boom is in what is called information technology.  People in the most non-technical of occupations talk knowingly about their problems with the registry in Windows95.  I can't get on an airplane without hearing conversations all around me about modem connect speeds and Office97 interoperability.  The world is filled with users.  By contrast, far fewer designers are needed.  Even most of us engineers, trained in design, go out into the world as users.

It's not that electrical design isn't important.  It is terribly important.  The whole world rests on the shoulders of electrical design.  Someone has to know what is inside those chips.  Progress depends on someone making them better along the planned progression of Moore's Law.  Unless you are that someone, however, in one of the few privileged design positions, the world will take that ordained progress for granted.

The sacred legacy of Ohm's law is sinking into the bottom of an abyss of complexity.  Even circuit designers seldom can be concerned with the details of electronics per se.  Most will work at simulators, and even then at higher and higher levels of aggregation and abstraction.   Only at these higher levels will designers be sufficiently empowered.  When there are a billion transistors on a chip, how many people will care about a single circuit?  Moreover, the higher levels of abstraction will become progressively isolated from the principles of classical electrical engineering.

There is, of course, a middle ground here.  Electrical engineers are also trained in algorithm design.  This is a fertile ground, precisely because of the burgeoning power of the electronics underneath.  Complex algorithms that were unthinkably costly only a few years ago have become nearly free to implement.  So we inhabit the middle and lower layers.  But I look jealously on all those applications above.  That territory is being occupied by a steadily growing number of computer science graduates, and is not considered the natural province of electrical engineers.

I see the world as an inverted pyramid.  It balances precariously on the narrow point at the bottom, which is occupied by the physical layers of the real world and peopled with engineers and scientists who build devices.  This point is being impressed into the ground by the heavy weight at the wide top of the inverted pyramid where all the applications reside.  Like Atlas, those relatively few physical designers at the bottom have the weight of the world on their shoulders.  The teeming hoards above have little appreciation for their travails.

So there is a dilemma.  Classical electrical engineers are trained in design.  A small number of designers will be critical.  These designers will be highly sought, and handsomely paid.  Educators will pride themselves on the demand for the shrinking number of graduates that they produce, while other disciplines will produce growing numbers of informed users who will work at the application levels.  Electrical engineering will be in danger of shrinking into a neutron star of infinite weight and importance, but invisible to the known universe.

I tell myself that the downsizing of any profession is a natural thing.  Perfectly good occupations come and go.  In the middle ages it was undoubtedly prestigious to be a troubadour.  Troubadours probably had learned publications where they told themselves how important they were to the world.  Then the world changed, and the universities were producing more troubadours than were needed.  Incoming students began to select other fields of study, like jousting.  The old troubadours went on singing their songs, but no one was listening anymore.

Projecting the current trends, future computers will consist of a single chip.  No one will have the foggiest idea what is on that chip.  Somewhere in the basement of Intel or its successor will be a huge computer file with the listing of that chip.  The last electrical engineer will sit beside the file, handcuffed to the disk drive like a scene out of "Ben Hur."  That engineer will be extremely well paid, and his or her every demand will be immediately satisfied.  That engineer will be the last keeper of the secret of the universe: E = IR.


Robert W. Lucky