The world belongs to engineers.
I mean no offense to designers. As a journalist, I covered design for several years and developed a high opinion of it. If nothing else, design humanizes research and technology. But for a fundamental task—a suit that will keep astronauts’ blood from boiling in space, a bridge across an impossible chasm—call an engineer.
As any engineer can tell you, though, the profession isn’t known for social graces. And yet engineers now make mobile devices, software, and video compression—they’re building social experiences. And when you let an engineer throw the party, sometimes it can be a little awkward.
I spent the last few months testing a new category of social engineering: remote-presence devices. These are mechanical avatars through which I can haunt Popular Science’s New York office from my home in Oakland, holding meetings, popping in on the staff, and generally freaking everyone out.
But it turns out face-to-face conversation can’t just be engineered. In 1994, Eric Paulos, a UC Berkeley electrical engineer and computer scientist, built the first remote-presence device: a blimp that allowed an operator to see and speak through it. This predated breakthroughs like Wi-Fi, tiny monitors, and reliable actuators as well as Gmail, Skype, and other basics of connected society. And while Paulos managed to create a device, he quickly ran into the problems associated with engineering human interactions.
“It was a big transition point for me,” says Paulos, now director of the Living Environments Lab. He had to make the leap from his fundamental training in amperage and wiring (how stuff is made) to an abstract interest in human interactions (how stuff is used). “I went from doing robotics—an engineering path—to social cues. I started thinking about gaze length, trust, really subtle stuff.”
Tom Foster explores another awkward intersection between engineering and human experience: the creation of artificial meat. As the planet outgrows its natural meat supply, engineered meat could act as a substitute. But whether grown in a lab or made of vegetables, the stuff is just plain gross to most of us. That revulsion—Tom calls it the uncanny valley of food—is a culinary version of the same reaction several of my colleagues had to my robot self. The engineers, once again, have a big job to do.
_This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of _Popular Science.