By Dr. Lise Johnson (CSNE Education Manager)
There are lots of engineers out there, wandering loose in the world doing their engineering thing. You have probably heard of them, you may have even met one, or seen one on television. As a result, even if you don’t know exactly what engineering is, you may have some sort of an idea. For example, I was long under the impression that the job of an engineer was to build bridges and dams and power plants. My grandfather was an engineer and that was what he did. He was also very insistent that only a small number of appliances be plugged into a wall outlet, no matter how many extension plugs one might have. This all makes sense because he was a civil engineer and an electrical engineer, and those are some of the things that civil and electrical engineers do. However, there are other kinds of engineers out there, and for these sorts, building bridges and dams and power plants is not part of the job description. They do things that are entirely different, like developing new therapeutic drugs, or writing software programs, or making more efficient jet engines. There are chemical engineers, and mechanical engineers, and computer engineers, and materials engineers, and biomedical engineers, and environmental engineers, and on, and on and on. I only stop there because I am getting tired. All of these people work on different kinds of projects, or on different parts of the same project – so what part of what they are doing is the engineering part?
Fundamentally engineers are people who use science and math to solve problems. There are lots of different kinds of science and there are lots of different kinds of problems (you can’t even imagine how many problems there are), so there are lots of different kinds of engineers.
Scientists spend their time learning about the natural world, and they do this because they are really interested in how the world works. They really want to know stuff; they’re pursuing knowledge. Sometimes they can see an application for that knowledge, and sometimes they can’t, but either way, that’s not their job. They’re uncovering truth, and that’s a full time job in itself. It’s up to the engineer to come along, see what scientists have uncovered, and say, “You know, I bet I could do something with that.” Let’s take as an example, electricity. Benjamin Franklin was, among other things, a scientist. In addition to demonstrating that lightning is electricity, he also discovered positive and negative electrical charge and the principle of conservation of charge, which is all very impressive and foundational to our understanding of electricity. What he did not do, was invent the light bulb, Thomas Edison did. Okay, Thomas Edison didn’t really invent the light bulb either, but he invented the first light bulb that was commercially viable, which is why he gets the credit. Thomas Edison called himself an inventor, which is fair, because he invented a lot of things. However, he was also one of the first electrical engineers. As it turns out, these are not such different things anyway. The word “engineer” is derived from the Latin word “ingenium,” the same root from which we get the word “ingenious.” Long before the invention of the internal combustion engine, the word “engine” just meant, “clever invention.” The Edison light bulb was pretty clever, wouldn’t you say? Thanks to engineering we can light up a room without having to light anything on fire.
Of course, there isn’t always such a tidy line between scientists and engineers. Especially in collaborative fields, there is a great deal of overlap and a lot of engineers end up doing science and lot of scientists end up doing engineering. In some fields the science and technology are so new that they are growing together, and progress demands both kinds of expertise.
Neural engineering is exactly that kind of field. Within the engineering disciplines, neural engineering is a newbie, which means there is a lot of stuff all happening at the same time. There are plenty of different problems to choose from just within the field of neural engineering. Some of these problems are related to communicating directly with the nervous system. Can we record the electrical activity of the brain and use it to control a prosthetic arm? Can we electrically stimulate the brain to restore vision to the blind? But there are other things to think about, like figuring out more about how nervous systems work. Can we use engineering techniques to understand how brains do what they do? If we can figure out what brains do, can we use that information to engineer better machines? There are still no robots that can interact with the world anywhere near as well as animals do; maybe if we understand how animals sense and move we can make more useful robots.
These are the kinds of problems that engineers and scientists at the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering are trying to solve. To do this they draw on techniques from many of the other engineering disciplines and they have to be creative in their problem solving. In fact, they have to be inventive. And that is just what neural engineers are: inventors, thinking of clever ways to unlock the secrets of the brain.