3 February 2020

How I roller-skated into engineering…

So I wonder if you’d join me? We’re going back to school, to my school.  It’s about 30 years ago 😊 at William Austin Junior School in Luton, England. Mr Fletcher has set us a task – he wants us to design a product for the future… and it’s going to be a competition.  

I have a developing idea…  

I was sure that roller skates needed propulsion, pea shooters and greater street presence! This was my design…

The fabulous ‘Rocketers’

Yes, I kept my design all these years.  You can see as an 11-year old, I valued fog lights, a vent for foot odours and an aerial, which most dates the design as it pre-dates mp3 players or technologies we would use today to listen to music on the move.

Personal propulsion moved on of course, despite my design never coming to life, but today we think nothing of Segways or e-scooters…

I was voted into the final two and had to pitch my idea to the class… but came second (!)… losing out to a boy who had an equally fantastic design, priced in Pence rather than the Pounds I thought my product was worth. I learnt an important marketing lesson that day, that price matters as well as proposition – albeit neither of us could have economically manufactured our products.

It’s likely today that a class being asked to undertake a similar exercise would use a computer running a Computer Aided Design (CAD) software package. Our Industry standard tool at Siemens DI is called NX- which would have blown my mind in the early 80’s, but not long after my first foray into design we bought our first home computer: a Sinclair ZX81. In reality, my older brother paid for it through his paper round, but he shared nicely and I got computer time on it.

My first program looked like this:

10 PRINT “HELLO BRIAN”

20 GOTO 10

I suspect many first programs looked like that, but I remember my delight at being able to instruct and get an instant response from the computer. I went on to program code from hobbying magazines with games you could type in – it was painful and occasionally it didn’t work but was huge fun.  

I’m wondering how many of you reading this had a ZX81… That dates us doesn’t it? – our first computer. It had a powerful Z80 processor, 1Kbyte of RAM and could handle an incredible, one million instructions per second!

Sinclair ZX81

It’s reasonable to assume today that you will carry a smart phone. Mine is an iPhone, with an A12 ‘bionic’ processor, it’s an ARM System on a Chip that features 8 cores just for the Neural Processing Unit that’s been designed around Artificial Intelligence… It’s capable of processing around 5 trillion operations a second – representing incredible progress in a relatively short period of time.  

At our fingertips today we have access to immense computing power. Let’s take this idea, see how it developed and how we’re making use of our tech today…

They say a picture is worth a thousand words – What do you notice about this 2005 image of the crowds at St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City awaiting the announcement of Pope Benedict XVI? … Just the one or two flip phones…

Fast forward eight years however to when Pope Frances was announced and the vast majority were capturing the 2013 event on their smartphone.

Moving forward again to 2016 and we’d become the ‘selfie’ generation as demonstrated during Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign – with attendees taking pictures of themselves with Hilary and instantly sharing them on Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook.

The Internet Of Things (IOT) is fast becoming the ‘Internet of Everything’

Those uploads contributed to the growing quantity of data generated, which today we estimate to be around 2.5 quintillian bytes. Another way to understand the rate of data generation is to think of this as about 1.7Mbytes per person, per second – expanding further the internet or the Internet Of Things (IOT). The IOT is fast becoming the ‘Internet of Everything’ as computing power and connectivity grows for People and ‘Things’ – not just smart phones that feature GPS, gyrometers, cameras and advanced micro-processors but increasingly smart machines and devices too. As a consumer, I make the most of the connectivity and productivity afforded me by my tech by using it to shop, travel and communicate. As an engineer, I am interested in how we can use technology to better design and make things sustainably as well as understand how data and the IOT can benefit industry…

I have witnessed phenomenal progress in technology over the last 30 years… or so… and recently had reason to ask a number of technology stakeholders what the next 30 years could bring. I asked a number of Chief Technology Officers, apprentices, engineering graduates and also some schoolchildren to think forward 30 years. Of course, the grown-ups said things like, ‘We’re going to have captured all human knowledge’, ‘We’re going to have 8G technology’ and ‘Our understanding of DNA will enable us to wear devices that auto-diagnose health conditions, relieving the human doctor’. This would all be great… but I think I was just as inspired by Daisy, a 9 year old local student who drew this picture bringing to life her sense of what the future could look like…

Daisy’s vision of how we will live in 30 years

When asked how will we live, work and play in 30 years’ time? I learned we will have a platform on our roof so we can accommodate flying cars (I think the future of the last 50 years always featured flying cars in fairness but this time it’s going to happen). We’re going to have slides that will take us off the roof and deliver us to the house. We’re going to have disappearing, two-way televisions – a holographic television perhaps – and I think my favourite observation here is that we’re going to have brain machines that mean you don’t have to go to school.  I love the notion but I sense that with EEG technology, high performance computing and machine learning, why wouldn’t we in 30 years’ time have mapped the way the human brain thinks such that we will interact with our technology neurally. I wonder if Daisy might be right …

This story is part of my Digital to Physical Nuffield Lecture #IETEngTalk.

You can also find a whole host of materials to encourage those budding engineers at home aimed at school students, parents and teachers encouraging an interest in STEM, Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths on Siemens’ education website.

The next in my blog series takes is my guide to the fourth industrial revolution, Industry 4.0.

Related Tags