If the 20th century was “the engineered century,” what will the 21st century be?

In 2000, Neil Armstrong gave a compelling speech to the National Press Club where he laid out the idea that the 20th century could, in some sense, be thought of as “the engineered century.”  (PhD Comics has a great illustration of excerpts from the speech.)  In particular, engineering came into its own during the 20th century, and engineers really changed the whole fabric of society.

In his speech, he lays out the results of an attempt by the National Academy of engineering to identify the 20 most significant engineering contributions to quality of life in the 20th century, and the list is quite impressive, including things like lasers and fiber optics, radio and television, transistors and integrated circuits, airplanes and automobiles, and (of course) electrification.   When one reads the list, it’s truly an amazing illustration of how magical the 20th century was, and the changes in life driven by engineering.

So then, the question, of course, is now that we are 15 years into the next century, can we start to imagine what the 21st century will be known as?  Personally, I’d say it’s looking like it will be “the century of information technology.”

Now, it’s quite early, of course, to make such a guess, but IT is certainly the early leader… Information (and computation) is increasingly pervasive, and it is now almost impossible to find a scientific discipline that is not being altered by this theme as tools from algorithms, machine learning, big data, etc., are invading areas like physics, economics, biology, …  The trend is unavoidable as computer science enrollments are doubling, tripling, and even more at top schools across the country.  For example, the computer science undergraduate option at Caltech is now larger than any other two options combined!  Nearly every student on campus takes our freshman-level CS courses, and nearly half the undergraduate body takes at least one (often more) of the sophomore level courses in algorithms and complexity.

More broadly, it is interesting to see how IT is now pervasive in most lists of the top societal accomplishments in recent years.  A great example is Slate’s recent series on the seven wonders of the modern world.   Nearly all of the mentioned “wonders” are made possible by recent IT advancements!


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