Wulf urges engineers to lead global economy

Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky and technological advancement is an association few people, if any, have heard before.

William Wulf, participating in the 12th annual Gould Distinguished Lecture yesterday, said Gretzky attributed his success to the fact that he “always skated to where the puck would be.”

This, according to Wulf, should be the goal of today’s engineers. To maintain leadership in the global economy, Wulf said, “We’ve got to think about the industries and the jobs that will be.”

The title of Wulf’s speech was “American’s Technological Challenge: Maintaining a Leading Role in the Global Economy.”

Wulf is currently President of the National Academy of Engineering. Operating under presidential orders, the academy is often called upon to advise the government on issues concerning science and engineering.

Wulf’s view of looking toward the future stems from the foresight many industrial leaders lacked in the past.

Wulf used Bill Gates as an example, saying that Gates once claimed no person would ever need more than 640 kilobytes of memory in his or her personal computer.

“My car has more than 640 kilobytes,” Wulf joked.

From this, Wulf stressed, comes the importance of understanding the “closed-loop” nature of technology. Instead of believing that technology affects society, engineers must remember that society affects technology as well.

A clear indication of this, according to Wulf, is in his choice of word processing program. “I use Microsoft Word. I think it’s a crummy program,” he said. “I use it because I can attach a Word document to my e-mail, send it to almost anybody, and they’ll be able to open it and read it.”

The value of this, Wulf indicated, far supersedes any problems he might have with the program itself.

Wulf also indicated that the United States plays a vital role in allowing technology to advance.

“I think the United States has a cultural advantage which is completely under-appreciated,” Wulf said. “In this country, unlike any other in the world, it is OK to fail.”

Wulf indicated that failure helps companies succeed in the long run. According to him, this characteristic must not be overlooked when attempting to establish new technology.

Wulf also commented on the United States’ overseas job industry. According to him, sending jobs overseas does not necessarily mean they are taken away from workers at home.

Closing down struggling manufacturing plants is imperative, Wulf said. He said he understands this means the workers will experience hardships, but said, “I don’t think, however, conserving their jobs for another few years is really addressing the problem.” More important is to establish a “life-long learning system” to retrain the workers for the jobs of the future.

Wulf said that concentrating on the jobs of the future, maintaining the ethics of the engineering trade, and creating a technologically “literate” society should be the focus of the industry.

“Why is it OK to be technically illiterate when so much of our society depends upon technology?” Wulf asked.

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