Among technology leaders burdened with unmet and ill-defined goals, setting engineering targets is the rage, promising specific results to people, corporations, and government.
Whether the demand is for capping the rise in Earth’s temperature, creating therapies to halt memory loss in the elderly, or expanding farm output to meet the world’s growing population, the answer is the same: Set targets.
The urge to target is varied and insistent—and contradicts the widespread view that technologies and their underlying physics and mathematics determine outcomes, not people. A movement to put humans at the center of engineering is fueled by the popularity of “effective altruism” and humanitarian engineering. Increasingly, politicians and the public talk about the technologies they want rather than settling for what Technology—with a capital T—can give them.
The sensibility informs a range of urgent questions for engineers. Does artificial intelligence pose threats to humanity? Target good outcomes of AI. Might robots destroy human employment? Create robots that only help workers. To counter Ebola, cancer, and other lethal diseases, invent vaccines or cures.
Targets (think putting humans on the moon) are a clever means of holding technologists to account, charting their progress, and insisting on results. In an age of limited resources, great inequality, and growing uncertainty, clear aims trump the value of free-wheeling inquiry.
But while appealing, targeting masks complexity and encourages overconfidence, even complacency. Existential threats, it turns out, are easy to identify but difficult to resolve.
Terrorism, chaotic climates, cyberweapons, mysterious diseases, vanishing species: The list of fixable perils grows longer with each year. Technologies of abundance altered our existence but came at a cost that is only now being more accurately counted. This tension—between the glories of our engineered lives and the price to be paid for them—is the essential drama of our times. No one sits closer to the center of this gathering storm than the engineer. Only the engineer understands the contradictions of the human-built world and possesses the skills to craft solutions.
Yet engineering never occurs in isolation. Targets reflect the desires of masses of people. In a fragmented world, where cherished diversity spawns at times irreconcilable claims between factions, only existential threats generate the unity of purpose that in turn produces universally shared hopes for emerging technologies.
No surprise then that the technological landscape is littered with failed efforts at targeting, whether mounted by governments, corporations, or civil society.
Crafting targets is part art. Targeting seems least effective when goals are broad and fuzzy. Such targets as improving primary-school education, curing cancer, or preventing terrorists from using social media to win converts can seem impossible to reach. These challenges and others like them require pushing down multiple pathways toward many smaller targets, which then exponentially increases cost, complexity, and the chances of failure.
The multidimensionality of many goals has serious implications for targeters. Constraints on innovation aren’t limited by ambition or even resources. The prospects for bending the physical world to humanity’s wishes can never be fully tested in a lab or modeled on a computer. Because rising temperatures reflect many factors, halting warming will require many engineering projects, each with its own target. The interactions among the new targets raise the specter of an infinite regress.
Don’t despair. Setting targets makes sense, especially if targets are concrete, feasible, and widely desired. Yet ambitious technological campaigns demand enormous humility. Grand aspirations for engineering must be matched with an awareness of the potential for choosing the wrong target or messing up in pursuit of the right one. All we can know for certain is that our good intentions are never enough.
About the Author
For nearly 40 years, Zachary has been fascinated by the role of engineers in innovation and their relationship to science, politics, and culture. He is the author of Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century, and Showstopper, about the making of a software program. At Arizona State University, where he is a professor in the university’s school of innovation, he teaches courses on the past, present, and future of technological change. Zachary began his social studies of engineering as a journalist, reporting on Apple and computing for newspapers in San Jose. In 1989, he became the chief Silicon Valley reporter for The Wall Street Journal, where he was senior writer until 2002. He later wrote columns on digital innovation for The New York Times, Technology Review, IEEE Spectrum, and other publications. Zachary’s work grew increasingly international in the 1990s, when he traveled extensively to technology enclaves in Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe. In 2000, he published The Global Me, a book on multicultural identity and the new world economy; a revised edition, incorporating the crisis engendered by 9/11, was published in 2003 as The Diversity Advantage: Multicultural Identity in the New World Economy. Zachary maintains a strong interest in sub-Saharan Africa, and in many of his more than 50 research visits to the region he has concentrated on the relationship of technology and development. He is the author of a memoir, Married to Africa: A Love Story, and a collection of essays, Hotel Africa: The Politics of Escape. In 2017, he completed a three-year study of the growth of computer science at universities in Uganda and Kenya, a project funded by the National Science Foundation. Zachary’s writing has been described as “deeply informed and insightful” by The New York Times, and The Atlantic has called him “a serious public intellectual who can combine familiarity with the scholarly literature...and first-hand reporting.” To learn more about Zachary, see www.gpascalzachary.com.