Engineers on the brink of extinction threaten entire ecosystems • The Register

Opinion Intel has produced incredible graphics in its time: projected Itanium market share, next node power consumption, increased multi-core performance.

The graph presented by the company at the last VLSI symposium, however, was a real shocker.

While attendance in computer science courses has increased by more than 90% over the past 50 years, electrical engineering (EE) has declined by the same amount. The electronics graduate has become rarer than an Intel-based smartphone.

That part of the tech industry that makes real things has always been divided between the hardies and the softies, the soldering iron versus the compiler, the oscilloscope versus the debugger. But the balance is lost. Something is wrong at the heart of our technology creation supply chain. Where have all the bold gone?

Engineering degree courses represent a lot of work in many disciplines, electronic engineering being particularly diverse. The theory side covers signal, information, semiconductor devices, optical and electromagnetic theory, so your math better be good. There is any amount of knowledge needed, analog and digital, across the spectrum from millimeter RF to high-energy power engineering. And then you have to know how to apply all of this to real-world problems.

It’s not the kind of class you choose to do because you can’t think of anything better. You have to want to do it, you have to think you can do it and do it well enough to make it your career. For this you need prior exposure. You must have caught the taste. And to make it your life, there must be plenty of high-level, high-paying, high-interest jobs to do at the end.

For most of electronics history, there was a clear on-ramp for it, and an industry that didn’t need to sell itself because it was inherently cool to geeks. Look at the biographies of electronics greats, like Intel co-founder Robert Noyce or father of the information age Claude Shannon, and you’ll find them like teenage geeks tearing down, then rebuilding, then designing radios and guitar amplifiers. The post-war generation demolished surplus military equipment to learn how it worked and extract components to build their own inventions.

It was hands-on magic, and you could start learning by removing a broken wireless connection. If you felt like it, it was easy to ignite the fascination. Then came the allure of working on the front lines of the Cold War, the space age, the age of technological innovation. The industry had its supply of fresh creativity guaranteed.

This remained broadly true until the turn of the 21st century. A reasonably intelligent child would realize that the family CRT television was actually a particle accelerator with its own multi-kilovolt high-voltage generator, plus any amount of bits and reusable parts. You can have a lot of fun with it. There were old analog gadgets everywhere. You can look inside Granny’s radio and follow the signal path, component by component. It’s all gone now.

To a degree, we are surrounded by more electronics in our homes than entire nations had years ago. Your grandmother’s radio had maybe 10 transistors; one smart speaker, billions. But it’s a computer, like your flat screen TV is a computer, like your phone and your sound system and even your light bulbs are computers. The electronics sank out of sight, under thick alluvial layers of software, and it won’t do anything without that software. Any budding geek will first devote their youthful vigor to this software, because that is where the animating genius of the technology now resides. We literally cut ourselves off from a primary source of fascination.

It’s not all bad news. The Maker culture is alive and well and access to knowledge has never been easier. You don’t have to go to a library to pull out books on electronic theory or find some intriguing gadget to gut. It’s all on YouTube. Want to disassemble a laser bomb guidance system from an RAF Tornado? Mike’s Electric Stuff has you covered. But the manufacturer’s culture revolves around embedded processors and high-level designs: you can now build radios at home that cost a few dollars and surpass the state of the art of a few years ago, but they are defined by software.

If electronics is invisible at the start of a young engineer’s life, it is invisible in the careers he may envision. In the 20th century, not only were consumer electronics teeming with differentiated analog desirables, but so were aerospace, military, and industrial. Now everything is a screen with a user interface. You still need a lot of specialized hardware, but it’s gone deep into the background. No wonder everyone who once wanted to solder is now trapped by software.

Is it possible that electronics will regain its status as the primary inspiration for young technical minds? Not without a lot of hard work from the industry that needs these minds. The pipeline he once took as the natural order broke down. To reach new talents, magic must be re-exposed. What happens in chip factories, design offices and product R&D is just as important – and as magical – as ever.

Selling that message in a world designed by geeks to entertain geeks is going to be tough. But we have hero marks, hero space missions, and temples where we conjure machines, atom by atom. If the industry can’t look at all the amazing things it does and find a way to capture the imagination, it deserves every last heartbreaking chart of doom. ®