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Riding the wave of technology

I am proud to be a mechanical engineer. I have this urge to know how the gadgets around me work. At home, I would try to repair the mixie myself before looking for a repair service. And so it was with the other contrivances around me.

Naturally I was delighted when I got my first car, a second-hand Ambassador. In 1984, car models were limited, especially when you were on a low budget. Not even the Maruti 800 had arrived.

This proud possession obviously gave me lots of opportunities to prove to my wife and young son how good an engineer I was. I became an expert in replacing the fuse in the electrical circuit whenever the car lights failed late in the evening while returning from a family outing. I mastered the art of cleaning the carburettor jet when the car got stuck in a busy street in Chennai, once during a shopping trip with my in-laws.

Late afternoon one Sunday, I drove my Ambassador to Tiruvanmiyur, then in the southern suburbs of Chennai, where we were building our house. That place was isolated those days. After inspecting the progress of the construction work, I got into the car to return home — and the engine wouldn’t start. I tried all my engineering tricks, but in vain. I looked around for a mechanic, and fortunately for me I could locate a car repair facility not far from the building site, manned by a young boy.

Raising his eyes from the oily car part he was cleaning, he stared at me, wanting to know the purpose of my visit. I explained the situation and asked for the senior mechanic. He said he can himself handle Ambassador cars, whatever be the problem. I was in a dilemma: me, an engineer, seeking help from a young kid to start my car? I had to give in for want of an alternative.

So we walked to my car. He was short, his eyes were just at the level of the car headlights. He asked me to open the bonnet, the first of a series of commands. He then stepped on to the bumper to peep inside the engine compartment.

After a thorough inspection and some smelling around, he asked me to start the car. The starter motor obliged but the engine refused to fire up. He then carefully inspected the fuel pipe and the spark plug and gave me his assessment of the situation — there is petrol in the system, the spark plugs are working, so the problem is dirt blocking the flow of fuel somewhere in the pipe system. The engine has to run and self-clean all fuel systems.

He then did what we engineers will not normally think of. He pulled out the fuel pipe and sucked some petrol into his mouth, opened the air filter cover and spat the petrol on the air filter. He then replaced the filter cover and tightened the wing nut. He got off the car and told me to close the bonnet and start the car.

Very confident he was. I was sceptical, had no faith in his strategy and in his method of enriching the fuel-air mixture. However, I turned the ignition key. The engine started and everything was fine. I still remember the glee on his face.

In modern days

I faced a similar situation recently. The car is different now; on top of the bonnet it sports a three-pointed star emblem. But it won’t start on a fine Sunday morning. With the natural instinct, I opened the bonnet but closed it immediately realising that I couldn’t do much. Emergency service of the car company came online and made me go through an elaborate test programme as a fault-finding exercise. When that didn’t work, they sent an engineer. One came promptly, connected his laptop to communicate with the car’s ‘brain’, and finally said it had to be taken to workshop to identify the fault. It took some time for them to figure out what had gone wrong. Finally it was fixed with some assistance from experts as far away as in Germany.

I thought of the Ambassador car-boy and his ingenious method of getting the car started. I wonder what happened to that breed of car mechanics who could tune an engine to perfection by listening to the sound, tinker the car body with some help from putty and make the car look new. Think of the new automobile revolution, electric cars with very few moving parts, autonomous cars, connected cars and so on. The space for traditional mechanics and tinkerers will shrink to almost nil.

The technology changes displace many who are in the supporting roles. This I guess happens in every field. There was a time when subscriber trunk dialing (STD) telephone booths were common in the city and suburbs, and there were then people manning the booths. With the advent of digital photography, photo studios are not common anymore. Specialists have moved in. Not too many people carry fancy single lens reflex (SLR) cameras while travelling; the mobile camera is more convenient with the additional features of instant sharing and transmission of pictures. The chunky telescopic lenses are hardly seen today in holiday locations.

Managers type their own emails in offices, so typists are not in demand. The once ubiquitous typing institutes are not seen these days. Growing automation in legal services may not threaten the lawyers’ existence yet, but opportunities could well be fewer in the future.

Artificial Intelligence (AI)-enabled algorithms have the potential to work independently in the medical field, though robots may not replace the doctor’s human touch in clinics and hospitals, at least not as yet.

I read recently that technology companies are working on transferring knowledge from the ‘cloud’ directly to your brain. Schools and colleges may assume a new role then.

Those young people getting into jobs now need to constantly upgrade their skill-sets and adapt to fast-changing technology, lest they become irrelevant after some years. To ride the wave of change, one way is to be the change-agent oneself.

xavierpj@hotmail.com


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Printable version | Jun 21, 2021 6:44:53 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/riding-the-wave-of-technology/article27033712.ece

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