What Impact Will Engineers Have in a Flat World?

Over the past few years, the paean to the rapid expansion of emerging economies has reached a crescendo. The excitement is palpable and everywhere. And unlike the similar frenzy about “Asian Tigers” in the mid-90s, this seems to be no swan song. The fate of the first world is now inextricably linked with these countries. The debate if the world is, or should be flat is passé. The more interesting question concerns our impact in this world.

About a month and a half ago, I heard Rich Templeton, the CEO of Texas Instruments, speak at MIT on “Building Technology that Matters: Global Opportunities in Engineering.” Mr. Templeton argued that the rise of economies like India and China meant that technology now had billions of new consumers. He was of the opinion that this might be the “best time in history” to be an engineer. Mr. Templeton’s excitement is well founded. Inevitable hiccups aside, the growth is real, has led to prosperity for the large middle class in these economies, and fueled unprecedented demand.

However, what often goes unmentioned is that despite this breakneck growth over the last decade, the World Bank estimates that about 1.5 billion Indians and Chinese, out of a total 2.3 billion, earn less than two dollars a day. Growth has not always translated to prosperity for the countryside, where the majority in these countries still lives.

These are not a pessimist’s statistics, the glass half empty, and they are not meant to discount the real and large populace with spending power in these economies. But these numbers do suggest that opportunities for great impact exist outside of engineering the next cell phone or washing machine. They exist in using technology to tackle challenges like basic health and literacy that two-thirds of the people in these countries face.

Engineers usually consider these developmental problems the purview of social workers, economists, and policy makers. The instinct is not completely misplaced. An important reason why India has been inept at combating poverty (unlike China which, the past decade notwithstanding, has made great strides) is lack of education and infrastructure that would allow the rural population to migrate to the more prosperous urban areas. Also, technology is no solution for many systemic problems like corruption and often bloated or broken bureaucracies in these countries.

It is important for engineers to realize that despite all this, the potential for technological impact in these underserved communities is tremendous. Consider, for instance, disease. There are 9 million new cases of tuberculosis every year. TB is a curable disease whose treatment has been known since the 1950s, and antibiotics offered free of cost for years (governments subsidize them). Yet 1.7 million people die of TB every year. The problem is vast and complex, and on the surface it seems technologists can do little to change the situation. But the approaches being considered by volunteer groups at MIT suggest otherwise.

Rapid and reliable diagnosis of TB using cheap, portable kits continues to be a challenging problem with great potential impact. One approach is mass spectrometry followed by sophisticated pattern analysis to detect mutant strains of the TB bacteria. This requires collaboration between virtually every engineering field — from signal processing and pattern recognition to intelligent design (the mechanical kind) and low-cost manufacturing.

More typically, it is not technology per se but its intersection with human behavior that has significant potential. A model being explored in TB treatment encourages small groups of patients to get together, share the ups and downs of their treatment progress and encourage one another to take their pills. Every patient is periodically given an incentive based on the drug compliance of their entire group. It is a model motivated by the micro-loan paradigm, and its power lies in reaching ever larger populations by significantly decreasing volunteer effort (who often travel 30 miles to ensure drugs are taken). A challenge is verifying that a group does in fact come together and take their pills. I am part of a volunteer group organized under the MIT Public Service Center’s Yunus Challenge, exploring a low-cost pillbox with the ability to detect its peer pillboxes and its own usage (i.e. when it was opened, and what doses were dispensed). We believe that such a box could efficiently enable collaborative compliance.

These are efforts I know of, and there are certainly other, even more compelling ones. The MIT Public Service Center, the Development Lab, and Dimagi, a health informatics firm which often pioneers innovative approaches in rural developing economies, are some examples of local organizations that facilitate engineering for social impact.

I agree with Mr. Templeton’s exhortation that this is perhaps the best time in history to be an engineer. It is important to ensure that our impact is not limited to islands of urban prosperity. The ravages of indigence and disease do not wait for prosperity to trickle down to underserved communities. They are not patient. We must be equally impatient.

Bhardwaj is a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science.