loud Atlas is a novel in six separate parts, where each story takes place long after the last, and where the story from each one somehow intertwines with the next. Recently, a film adaptation came out which is getting mixed reviews. But that’s not why we’re talking about it.
Whether it lives up to the novel, or whether the story is even good, is irrelevant to the fact that its depiction of the future may be far more accurate than we’d like. Here are four issues Cloud Atlas brings up which we think engineers will have to face—or already are:
The ethics of genetic engineering: In Cloud Atlas‘s city of Nea So Copros (called Neo Seoul in the movie), cloned servants called ‘fabricants’ are created to serve at restaurants and cafes. These fabricants are engineered to be good and obedient, but more important here is the idea that clones are being created at all. This has been an ethical issue biological and genetic engineers have had to struggle with for a long time. And it’s actually being considered today in California, where a bill is up for vote which would require genetically-engineered foods to be more explicitly labeled.
With plants it’s one thing, but the issue for humans is this: genetic engineering could help fight (or even totally prevent) diseases like allergies, cancer and Alzheimer’s—but could be easily misused to create people which are all the same, and might encourage discrimination against ‘inferior’ traits. How does an engineer deal with an issue like this?
Food: In Nea So Copros, fabricants are eventually recycled into food for new fabricants. Gross and morbid factor aside, this brings up an important issue which engineers also face today: how can we feed everyone in a growing world? There are places in the world where hunger is incredibly common, and we’re lucky enough not to live in such a place—no matter what, you’ve probably got it better than someone in a 3rd-world country. And with a rapidly-growing world population, this issue is only going to get bigger. That’s why we’re looking into things like vertical farming for solutions, and why vegetarianism is encouraged to save food (growing meat takes a lot of grain which humans could eat).
One answer is the genetic engineering of plants (see how these issues intertwine?), as approached by people like Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug. Borlaug has traveled around the world to find ways to enhance crops for less-fortunate countries, and as a result has helped feed millions (if not billions) of people.
Global climate change: This issue is highly visible in Nea So Copros as well. In Cloud Atlas it is depicted as global warming, though both warming and cooling are possible outcomes depending on what happens. We can see in Nea So Copros that the city is slowly being submerged in water, and is only protected by massive dams. And the melting of those ice caps is probably caused by the greenhouse effect, which is amplified by the world’s output of carbon, methane, and other gases, into the atmosphere.
Climate change is something which humans have definitely helped cause, but also something that Earth does naturally. To help limit our contribution (which could potentially throw the world’s ecosystem totally out of whack) we invest in clean energy and try to limit emissions wherever we can, by making electric cars and improving manufacturing practices. All of these solutions require engineers to actually make the solutions happen. Pretty straightforward.
Housing: While not explicitly brought up by the movie, housing clearly is an issue, as we see in Nea So Copros. It appears that the standard living space is a technologically-advanced concrete room, which crams all of the things important for life into a tiny space, and uses technology to make it prettier than concrete is.
We don’t necessarily have to worry about engineering technologically-advanced concrete, but it’s clear that, with a growing population, any engineer who can find a way to reduce one’s required living space (without detracting from comfort!) will be a successful engineer.
Especially as the world population slowly gravitates towards urban environments: in 1800, only 3% of the world’s population lived in urban areas. In 1950, it was over 30%. Now it’s even higher. When everyone lives in a tiny space, of course we need to engineer good housing!
These are issues engineers face today, and ones which will likely continue to be issues for engineers for years to come. Engineers definitely face some tough questions, and it’s up to you as an engineer to find the best answers you can.