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Childrens engineering inventions could soon be a reality

05 October 2016


The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) has predicted some of the ground-breaking engineering jobs likely to emerge over the next 50 years as young people from across the UK tell us about what they would love to invent.  

To coincide with the IET Engineering the Future Festival on Thursday 6 October at Savoy Place in London, the IET has worked with a team of leading futurologists including the judge on BBC Robot Wars and Emeritus Professor of Artificial Intelligence & Robotics, Noel Sharkey, Dr James Bellini and Dr Ian Pearson, to explore some of the exciting and essential roles that engineers will play in the future.

It looks like many of the children’s engineering inventions they’d wish to create parallel with the predictions of the futurologists. Recent IET research shows four in ten (40%) children would invent ‘some form of transport that allows human beings to fly or travel to destinations in an instant’ which ties in with the innovation of transport engineering. According to futurologist Dr James Bellini: “there will be opportunities for engineers to work in areas like high-speed transportation. There are current projects aiming to develop supersonic pods to transport people between cities at 1000km an hour”.

Nearly one in five (18%) of children suggested inventing robots that can do the chores or care for the elderly.  Another prediction from Dr Ian Pearson is that robots and advanced artificial intelligence will develop exponentially: “As engineers make smarter machines, we’ll also add such capability to humans, with advanced exoskeletons and superhuman abilities. For example, engineers may even be able to develop Spiderman-style silk throwing capabilities for humans.” Linking to this Pearson also suggests that “as Robots and AI continue developing they may start to have problems of their own creating the need for robot psychologists and psychiatrists, as well as guards to keep them under control.”

Environmental factors played a part in children’s dreams with around one in eight (12%) saying they would invent something relating to climate change or renewable energy. According to Professor Noel Sharkey, as the world population grows and our natural resources diminish, much of engineering will be about how to extract renewable energy more efficiently and optimise its use. Noel commented, “There will be a need for new ways to find or create water supplies. We are already beginning to see robotics used to repair or minimise the damage caused by climate change. This will need to increase dramatically in the next 20 years and not just to develop repair technology but also to limit climate change impact."

Over one in ten children (11%) said they would like to invent a space gadget allowing humans to travel further into space. This coincides with the futurologists predictions about the rise of aerospace engineers. Dr Bellini states, “A new breed of engineers will be needed over the next 50 years to design and build permanent bases on Mars with the development of technologies that will eventually allow us to live and work off the planet.” Moreover, futurologist Dr Ian Pearson also predicts that the use of super-strong carbon-based materials will allow us to build incredibly tall ‘spaceport’ structures to enable more convenient space travel by 2045.  He added: “Some will be up to 30km high and may function as small cities in their own right, and engineers will be at the forefront of this.”

In terms of the skills needed for the future generation of engineers, there will be a clear need to steer away from traditional single-skill qualifications and for a more holistic approach as technologies become more advanced.

Professor Noel Sharkey commented: “Much of what engineers learn about and do now is based around computing and automated machinery. In the longer term, engineers will need to be highly flexible and creative as they will be employed more for innovative design ideas and to create self-sufficient robotic technology. Some engineering jobs will require learning to team with collections of autonomous tools and robots and interfacing with artificial intelligence problem solvers and diagnosticians.

“Overall, engineers are going to be needed more than ever in the future, and the roles available will be incredibly varied. Even traditional jobs will change dramatically with innovations that take 3D printing to the next level so that even large scale bespoke machinery can be created in situ in minutes. This would overhaul the manufacturing process and augmented reality will become a tool that the construction industry can use to speed up projects and identify technical problems.”

IET Vice President, Will Stewart, said: “Engineering and technology skills are currently hugely in demand and are central to a vast array of different careers.  With the current engineering skills shortage in the UK, there is an urgent need to get more young people, particularly girls, interested in engineering and technology and as the IET Engineering the Future Festival will show, the exciting range of creative engineering jobs in engineering and technology will explode over the next 50 years. Many of the jobs we have identified don’t exist today. But we want to highlight these job opportunities to young people – the engineers of the future - so that more of them will be enthused about the possibilities of a career in engineering. We expect that an engineering career will become ever more diverse, varied and exciting, changing much more over time than has been traditional - which will be far more rewarding.”

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