In normal engineering, you start out imagining a function that you want an artifact to perform, and a list of constraints, and then you design the artifact to meet those goals. You keep an eye out for elegance and beauty on the way.

Reverse engineering would be where you start out by imagining a cool-looking (or interesting-acting), beautiful object and then try and imagine, “What could something that looks like that be good for?”.

With normal engineering you end up with stuff that does useful stuff, and that sometimes looks cool. With reverse engineering you end up with stuff that looks cool and that might do something useful1.

It’s possible that practicing reverse engineering from time to time would help you discover new ways for objects to provide certain functions and in this way to help out normal engineering too. This is one of the same benefits hypothesized for practicing MetaphysicalCode.


Ha! What a great page idea! This idealet’s been hanging in the background for a while, I’m so glad to see a page for it now. :)

But a thought- can we rename it? “Reverse Engineering,” to most of the world, means: “Seeings something that exists, and figuring out how it works.”

Perhaps: SpeculativeEngineering? FruitLoopsEngineering?? ExploratoryEngineering??

I like “speculative,” best. :)

I have had this idea bouncing around in my nogin as well. I called it ReverseEngineering?, but it was not off of a finished product. It was a ReverseEngineering? of an ideal. Say how do we make public education better, what are the steps. I think that a wiki is a great way to do this… SpeculativeEngineering is nice, but I think we will find something a little different.

This page is making me feel like the centipede that could never walk again, after it was asked how it decided which leg to move first. :-)

  • As an educated, qualified, practicing, Professional Engineer (B.A.Sc., P.Eng) of more than 3 decades I must note that…
    • Generally, engineers are not the most imaginitive people I’ve met. They seldom speculate about what could be built. Instead, they are compensated by their Clients to develop a design that meets a specified need.
    • The term “reverse engineering” is generally used to describe a process of studying a “black box” that performs some function(s), and then creating a competing process or solution. Inevitably this involves creating something that produces virtually the same result, but invariably in a different way. The particular skill that I personally exploit in my work is “synthesis”. I hang out with a great many Analysts (people who can study a “black box” or a “business process” or some other “system”, and identify its (sub) components or methods). Contrast that to the relatively rare role of synthesis, which reviews the existing components of more than a single system and assembles some compenents from more than one system, to create a different (generally unexpected or ‘serendipitous’) result. One of the reasons I like this, is because it allows me to be much more effcient than if I have to design my own ‘components’.

Now Im not sure why I felt compelled to add these views to this SpeculativeEngineering page, but I’m hoping that its because I curious as to what that page will become and I would like to suggest some terminology during its early development, so that it might be easier to understand one another.

While I was in school, I was learning programming and electronics. Equations, big O() notation, etc. – how to take an existing program or circuit and estimate how fast it would go, etc.

All of that was “substrate independent” – it made little difference if the program was running on a microcontroller inside a keyboard, built out of a handful of TTL chips, built out of a few thousand discrete transistors, or a roomful of relays.

About the same time, I stumbled across I.D. magazine. It shows many photos of interesting-looking or beautiful artifacts, with a bit of description.

Occasionally that magazine had an article on an Apple computer, but it had a completely different focus from what I was learning in class. I.D. magazine said nothing about what was inside the case, but focused on the case itself – how it looked, how it made people feel, the Frog Design group that designed the case, etc.

Many of the artifacts pictured in that magazine were one-of-a-kind. They were fully functional, but only one had been built so far, and someone was deciding whether or not to make any more.

However, many of the artifacts were non-functional. It appeared to be a wrist computer, or a fold-up automobile, or whatever -- but it was a painted-on display, a fiberglass mockup without an engine, or was otherwise non-functional. (But it looked cool!)

When I design a wristwatch, I may want people who see it to think “That’s cool. Where can I buy that wristwatch? I want to buy one as soon as possible.”. But when I’m actually wearing a wristwatch, I’m not so sure that’s what I want people to think.

Many of those artifacts look “realistic” in the sense that, with sufficient budget and current off-the-shelf technology, I got the impression that one could make a fully functional artifact that looks and acts more-or-less the same as the idea that showed up in our minds when we looked at the mock-up. Although it’s quite possible that I overlooked some non-obvious difficulty that makes it impossible to build with near-future technology.

I’ve seen few times people trying to work out the user interface of a program or website using cardboard paper and post-it notes. One person pretends to be the user, “clicking with the mouse” (pressing finger against a drawing of a button) or “typing into a field” (writing with a pencil on a post-it note). The other person pretends to be the computer, shuffling around cardboard frames and paper drawings of buttons and the post-it note with the text the “user” had entered – but not allowed to speak and pretending to ignore anything the “user” says. Alas, all too often the resulting “design” of what the computer program should do seemed relatively simple, but no one could get the computer to be quite that “smart”. Sort a million records in the blink of an eye? no problem. Recognize my handwriting? We’ll have to sprinkle magical Artifical Intelligence pixie dust on that part of the problem, and we’re fresh out. Sorry.

Also while I was in school, occasionally I would wander by the architecture department. Every semester I saw dozens of “buildings” produced by architecture students. They were tiny scale models made of foamcore and glue and paper, with tiny little model people to give the scale. But they made you think of full size buildings – airy passages, soaring towers, or broad cantilevers. I learned enough in my “Strength of Materials” class to realize that steel is so strong that most of them – even the “unstable, fragile” looking ones – were physically possible to build.

So there is something in-between artifacts that we see in the real world and the unrealistic artifacts in fantasy and science fiction that we will never see. I’ve seen photos and mock-ups of hundreds (thousands?) of artifacts where a not-fully-functional mock-up exists in the real world, but it makes us think of a fully-functional version that doesn’t yet exist.

And why aren’t these cool-looking artifacts available to you today? Is there a DoctrineOfSecrets hiding them from you? As far as I can tell, no.

  • It’s not really physically possible with near-future technology (requires magical Artifical Intelligence pixie dust or some unobtanium material)
  • It would be so expensive to build that it’s not really feasible.
  • People incorrectly think it’s probably not feasible.
  • People know it is feasible. They know that a little time and effort and capital could convert each mock-up into a functional prototype, and a little more could build a mass production logistics chain (AboutLogistics) to bridge the gap between raw materials to tested, finished products. But there is not enough people – all their time and effort and capital is tied up in other things.


1. To save time, I suggest you don’t bother to build those things that you can’t think of a use for; if you follow that advice, then you’ll end up only with good-looking, useful things

Define external redirect: FruitLoopsEngineering ExploratoryEngineering ReverseEngineering