Science vs Engineering

I believe the world’s first trillionaire will be a scientist.

Bill Gates encourages potential opportunity-seekers to study science.

Mark Cuban believes the world’s first trillionaire will be whoever masters artificial intelligence (a stronger version of my claim).

Why?

First off, a big shout out to the app Dictate, the new voice to text app I’m using to write this blog post. It surprised me the bandwidth for cutting-edge voice-to-text technology has gotten to the point it’s now more efficient to record than to write, and once again speaks to the power of technology to automate actions traditionally done by hand. 

The topic for today’s post is mostly for people who are on the fence about deciding whether to major in engineering or science. I think a good answer on why one chose engineering over science would be a highly personalized one, for example:

  • “Engineering has been my passion since a very young age.”
  • “I just love building stuff and I couldn’t imagine myself sitting at a table having my head buried in the textbook all day without the opportunity to turn theory into practice.” 
  • “My family is in a not-so-good financial situation. A decent salary as an engineer would allow me to provide for both my current family and family in the future.”

Answers that makes me more suspicious (and should be further dissected) are ones of the form, “Engineering allows me to make a larger real world impact.”

To address this suspicion, I think we can first agree that engineering is fundamentally built upon science. Science, by definition, is the discovery and consolidation of insights into the way the world works. Engineering is the development of tools and resources to turn those ideas into a product that could potential be of value to society. When Google was founded, Sergii Brin took an idea about random walks in directed acyclic graphs (centuries old) and used it to formulate PageRank, the original search engine algorithm.

Most of today’s engineering marvels were not tied to a contemporary scientific breakthrough; it’s usually long after the discovery has been made do engineers then turn it into an application. At one point, pure number theory, the most abstract field in science, was joked to never be of application to the world, until ideas of elliptical curves formed the center of modern elliptical curve cryptography, which people now use daily (digital signatures, encryption, pseudo-random generators, etc.). Science, however abstract, could be mapped to reality in the sense that they are the product of some cognitive processes of our brain, the product of evolution and nurture, both of which are tied to reality. As Hume says in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, “But although our thought seems to be so free, when we look more carefully we’ll find that it is really confined within very narrow limits, and that all this creative power of the mind amounts merely to the ability to combine, transpose, enlarge, or shrink the materials that the senses and experience provide us with.”

Consider if all scientific progress stops today. Engineering would continue to excavate what remains of the current world’s scientific insights, a finite intellectual pool of ideas , but its days would be limited.

Without engineering, human thought, hence scientific progress, would continue. Without scientific discovery, engineering eventually come to a halt. 

So how come some of today’s most successful people are engineers?

The reason why I believe so is that the process of going from idea to product is a terribly inefficient one. Mark Zuckerberg took the innovation that is the Internet, which was built on science, and turned it into Facebook, and the person who created the Internet did not get any share of Facebook stock. The way engineering progresses is that once an innovation is made, like the Internet, opportunism would guarantee people would find the way of least resistance to generate the most revenue; eventually, as evidence by the dot-com crash, this stops when all value has been excavated; it is then up to new scientific innovations, like blockchain or decentralized apps, to pave a new path for the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Part of technology is the streamlining of turning theory into practice. High-modularity programming abstracts away all the underlying engineering – as a developer, I’m constantly reminded to not reinvent the wheel. Back in the early day of web dev, one had to learn HTML and CSS from scratch to build his own domain. Today, I can do the same thing with a site like Wix and get a beautiful site in minutes. Engineering can be automated (and is being automated as we speak); science cannot (yet). Another way to put this is that in the future, it will be less impressive to be a very good engineer than to be a very good scientist who is at the cutting edge of progress and it’s only a matter of time for the market of engineers to become saturated for a specific innovation. The most decisive leverage an individual can have is to have both the competence and access to digest new innovation ideas faster (be at the cutting edge). 

An extreme example of this leverage is insider trading. “Did the experiment on the new drug work?” So much as a furtive glance by a scientist working in a biotech industry would be all it takes to short-selling all the company’s stocks.

A scientist could patent or make proprietary a new technique, common in the biotech industry, and then hire all the engineers he or she needs to turn it into a product all the while having stamped 50% of equity to him or herself. This allows scientists to gain more and more of a leverage on the technology industry, and is why I believe the ratio of scientists to engineers who are billionaires will increase in the coming decades. By the time we’re talking in the trillions, I believe this ratio would have surpassed one to one — hence my original claim for the post. 

I hope this post flushes out a potential advantage to studying science rather than engineering and addresses a reason that I think people don’t consider enough when on the fence between engineering and science.

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