Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) is a major professional discipline. International Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineering (IEEE) has more than 400,000 members from 160 countries. A growing number of students, particularly in developing countries, have been studying ECE. The engagement of an increasing number of professionals and students raises a question: what is the purpose of electrical and computer engineering? Particularly, how does university education in ECE contribute to society? In addition to it, what is the nature of jobs of ECE graduates and how to create economic value out of it is a subject of curiosity. Are they supposed to know technology, install and repair machines, or produce copies of technology products? Or, what else? On the other hand, despite the growing interest and role of technology in society, why are ECE graduates experiencing bleak job projects in developing countries is a matter of concern.
Lesson from the history—a flow of electrical and computer engineering ideas is the driving force
Let’s look into a jumbo jet-Airbus 380. While working as bicycle mechanics, Wright Brothers kept working on the idea of the flying machine. Consequentially, more than a hundred years ago, the journey of this miracle machine emerged as a toy flying machine of Wright Brothers—Wright Flyer. Since its inception, there has been a relentless race for adding a flow of ideas for improving the idea of the airplane.
Despite the beginning of the journey as a mechanical machine, the modern airplane is a very sophisticated electrical and computer engineering marvel. Thousands of ECE ideas are in operation in the form of sensors, algorithms, software, microcontrollers, computer displays, RADAR, actuators, and many more. All these ECE ideas have been contributing to improving the quality and reducing the cost of flying. Similarly, ECE ideas’ roles are visible in all modern machines starting from automobile to x-ray imaging. It’s not only typical electrical and commuter machines, more or less all industrial products and modern services are benefiting from ECE ideas. Consequentially, we have been increasingly finding a better quality of products, at less cost, to get our jobs done better.
Similar to the primitive emergence of many great ideas, a critical ECE technology, Transistor also emerged in a primitive form. A flow of ideas is being added in making the Transistor better and also cheaper. This journey of Transistor’s advancement, leading to high-density Silicon chip, has led to information technology revolution and formation of Silicon Valley.
We are all after wealth—higher quality products at a lower price and more profit
Science and technology do not grow by themselves. Wealth creation possibility and profiting from it is the underlying force. As economic incentives drive human beings, we are all after money, and more money. In fact, money is a tool to access wealth. Another way, it could be stated that we are after more wealth. By the way, how do we enjoy wealth, and how does wealth improve our quality of living standards? We use wealth for getting jobs done better for giving us more comfort. In fact, we are all after products, better products for getting our jobs done better at less cost, requiring less effort. Through better quality products, we improve our quality of living standards. And we want those products at less cost, so that we can deploy increasingly more of them to keep improving our quality of living.
In pursuit of finding better products at less cost, customers are roaming around shops or malls. While searching for suitable products, we also keep comparing alternative options to spend our money to derive maximum benefit. Well, why should producers offer higher quality products at a lower price? Producers are profit. While offering higher quality at a lower price, producers face the challenge of paying more for materials, labor, and other inputs and making an increasing profit for the investors. How is it feasible for the producers to meet this conflicting situation?
Ideas for economic value creation—the purpose of electrical and computer engineering is to supply ideas
For addressing the constraint of offering higher quality at a lower cost, while paying more for inputs, we need ideas. Through the supply of improved ideas, we succeed in improving the output quality while consuming fewer inputs. For example, we have been extracting an increasing amount of energy from a liter of petroleum while causing less emission due to better ideas. For this reason, most of the industrial products like TV, smartphone or microwave ovens are getting better and also cheaper. Although many products like potato chips or petroleum do not have any ECE ideas, the exploration, production, and refinement process immensely benefit from ECE ideas.
Prof. Paul Romer has articulated economic value creation as a function of objects and ideas. Objects include materials, energy, and many other inputs. In addition to mixing objects, ideas also contribute to substitute objects in producing higher quality output. For example, the idea of the precision distribution of farming inputs with smart sensing and UAV can improve the yield, lower environmental degradation, and reduce the wastage of inputs. The compounding effect of ideas over a prolonged period creates development success stories, often giving the impression of magic. It’s interesting to note that ECE is a major source of ideas touching all major economic activities, starting from farming to space exploration.
Ideas are far more powerful than natural resources and labor to create new wealth and mitigate the harmful implications of wealth creation. Every human being has been blessed with this virtue. Mr. Carl Marx observed it in ancient philosophical writing and termed it as praxis. Unlike other creatures, human beings are in a relentless race to find and applying ideas to recreate the world. In a competitive market, ideas also create the effect of creative destruction, as articulated by Prof. Schumpeter.
Market economy for extracting economic value from ideas
Like Wright Brothers’ Wright Flyer or Carl Benz’s automobile or the Transistor, invariably all great ideas emerge in primitive form. In the infancy, these ideas have a very faint capability of creating economic value. They need a flow of ideas to grow. But how to create that flow has been a challenge. It has been found that profit-making competition is vital in nurturing ideas out of the flow of ideas for creating increasing economic value. Hence, the market economy has adopted the principles of ownership of capital and freedom of competition to profit from ideas. The investment of public funds in education and academic research also plays a vital role in seeding the idea flow. Hence, along with the freedom of competition to profit from ideas, successful countries have also adopted public-funded education and research.
In the competition race, the next version of a product makes the previous version obsolete. On the other hand, with the maturity of a technology core, an alternative one shows up. For example, at the steam engine and vacuum tube’s maturity, the internal combustion engine and Transistor emerged, respectively. The subsequent growth of emerging technology core fuels a creative wave of destruction to incumbent products, jobs, firms, and industries. Hence, we should focus on harnessing the purpose of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
Challenges of creating economic value out of electrical and computer engineering
As it has been explained, ideas have been playing an increasingly powerful role in producing economic value. And ECE has been a major source of ideas. However, is there a natural correlation between ECE competence and economic value creation? Unfortunately, No. Hence, along with ECE graduates’ growth, developing countries have been witnessing growing unemployment and plummeting salaries of ECE graduates. An often raised issue is the quality of education. Unfortunately, any amount of quality improvement measures will not likely address the job creation issue.
Empowering students capable of acquiring competence in science, technology, engineering, and math is challenging. But it’s addressable. Unfortunately, the acquisition of existing ECE competence is insufficient to produce ideas to make products better and cheaper. The next step is to engage into research for advancing ECE knowledge resulting in publications and graduate thesis. Well, that is also not sufficient. That newly found knowledge, along with a passion for perfection, should be fed into creative minds to generate ideas—preferably patentable. So far, all these activities for acquiring existing ECE competence, engaging in R&D for advancing ECE, and generating patentable ideas will cost money. The next frontier is integrating those ideas into products and processes and profitably trading them in the globally connected competitive market. Until and unless we succeed in doing so, our ECE journey is a waste of existing resources.
It appears that profiting from ECE ideas in the competitive market economy is highly difficult. There have been major hurdles starting from culture, strategy, and policy to rational decision-making. Due to such reality, IBM lost PC business to infant Microsoft and Intel; Nokia suffered destruction in the mobile handset business; Kodak and RCA became bankrupt due to Sony.
Purpose of Electrical and Computer Engineering: creating wealth out of ECE ideas in the market economy
ECE ideas have been touching virtually every product we deploy to get our jobs done. As opposed to natural resources or labor, ECE ideas have made Apple the most valuable company of the world. But succeeding in creating wealth from ECE ideas is far more challenging than developing competence in ECE. Profitably trading of ECE ideas appears to be a highly difficult task, which also creates other jobs. For example, in Philips or Ericson, 5 percent of 100,000 workforces have been in R&D in producing ECE patents, while the remaining 95 percent of people are busy integrating those patents in products and processes and trading them.
It seems that we need to know first what it takes to profit from ECE idea trading. Upon doing so we should proceed in developing system capability for accruing existing ECE competence and advancing it, developing ECE ideas for making products better as well as cheaper, and finally winning the global competition race of ECE innovation. As opposed to just focusing on ECE education and research, it’s time to focus on the purpose of electrical and computer engineering and how to harness it. Unfortunately, people in developing countries are busy studying ECE and producing degrees instead of figuring out what it takes to create wealth and jobs out of it.