Understanding the past helps train future engineers

Saara Matala, Doctor of Technology and historian, studied last spring the role of Nokia engineers in the development of mobile platform security. The results serve to remind that technology does not develop in a vacuum; it involves interaction with surrounding society.
Saara Matala on tekniikan tohtori ja historioitsija
Saara Matala finds it important that tertiary engineer training approach technology from a social development angle for at least worth one study credit. Photo Matti Ahlgren / Aalto University

After the Secure Systems research group at the Department of Computer Science decided to study the role of Finnish engineers in the development of mobile security, especially the Trusted Execution Environment (TEE), the research group leader, Professor N. Asokan, hired Saara Matala. Shortly before, she had received a doctorate degree from the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and she was a historian to boot.

The goal of the study was to gain insight into the security solutions of current mobile appliances and to recognize the factors affecting their development and acceptance. For this, Matala and doctoral candidate Thomas Nyman interviewed veteran Nokia executives, researchers and information security experts.

According to Matala, Nokia's role in the development of mobile security is a good example of how vast technological methods come about. In the very beginning, systems are easy to modify, and the role of an individual engineer in the development of a solution can be decisive. But as systems develop further, grow and are standardized, it becomes ever more difficult to make profound changes.

Should engineers now develop cellular phone security technology from scratch, they could end up in a very different place than their colleagues a few decades ago because for example the price of components has dropped. ‘But certain basic choices were made in the early 21st century, and they still dictate the framework and elbow room for today's decisions,’ Matala says.

In the course of her study, Matala was surprised to learn how differently companies viewed  security in the heyday of Nokia cellular phones compared with today. Now, the importance of security is a given, but back then, it was difficult to market. Engineers took to referring to it as an enabler. ‘Instead of talking about security, they called it technology that enables better SIM locks or management of digital rights. These arguments worked to push new technology into phones.’

Humanists must understand technology, and engineers must understand humanity

Technology never develops in a vacuum. It is influenced by the surrounding society as well as the economy and political regulation. On the other hand, for example information security technology has profoundly influenced the development of pieces central to the current mobile industry, such as payment services and third party applications.

According to Matala, technology holds such a pivotal role in both engendering and solving social problems that it cannot be left to the engineers; also social scientists must gain insight.

Matala finds it equally important that tertiary engineer training approach technology from a social development angle for at least worth one study credit. ‘It won't do that people just talk within their own coterie and have no understanding of what anybody else is doing.’

Understanding of society makes for better engineers better equipped to solve the elaborate problems ahead.

Saara Matala

In Finland, it is fairly unusual for a historian to be working in a technological university. The world’s leading technological university, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), incorporated social sciences as part of its engineer training already after World War II. The advent of atom bombs made it clear that humanity had, for the first time ever, the technological potential to destroy Earth. Engineering students had to recognize the responsibility that followed from this capability.

Historical research can add to the understanding of the long-term effects of technology and industrial policy. Matala believes that the better grasp people have of social matters, the better decisions they make. ’My personal mission is to spread the word that a well-rounded understanding of society makes for better engineers better equipped to solve the elaborate problems ahead.’

‘Research is like treasure hunting’

Already as a schoolgirl, Matala was intrigued by both history and mathematics. Historians endeavour to understand vast entities and mathematicians to solve vast problems systematically. ‘Graduating from high school, everybody wants to save the world, but also understand it. The latter was my reason for wanting to study history.’

Matala discovered her passion for research while preparing her Master's dissertation in History. ‘I was sitting in the Bank of Finland archives, pouring over dusty folders. It was so much fun! It made me happy in a special way, like nothing I had experienced up to then.’

What was fascinating was access to the original source, the chance to challenge generally accepted truths on how historical events had unfolded. For example, although it is generally believed that trade between Finland and the Soviet Union imploded because the Soviet Union toppled, archival research shows that the bilateral trade arrangement was coming apart before the U.S.S.R. did. ‘Research is a little bit like treasure hunting; you never know what you will find, but you always find something. The suspense is what makes it interesting.’

Until now a project researcher at the department of computer science, Matala will move to Norway in September for post-doctoral research at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). She will study the migration from fossil fuels to biofuels, and the implications of such vast, systemic changes.

‘As long as research is meaningful, I would like to pursue it, but I don't see research as something that excludes other career options. Research training enables many other careers, too.’

Saara Matala
Photo Matti Ahlgren / Aalto-yliopisto

Saara Matala, Project Researcher

Education: D.Sc. (Tech.) (Mechanical Engineering), M.P.S. (Political History)

Awards and scholarships: Fulbright scholarship for researcher exchange in the U.S.A.

Resides in Helsinki

Born in Karkkila, Finland

Greatest professional achievement: Awarded best Novice Presenter at an international conference on history of technology. ‘Even though it was a very small recognition in the scale of the world, it made me feel for the first time that I had something to say, and that if you apply yourself, you can improve. I rehearsed my presentation an awful lot and was glad I didn't faint midway through. With that presentation, I took home the prize.’

Is also

a self-described mediocre but avid alto violinist. ‘I took up the violin at a very young age. I have played with Teekkarispeksi and the Polytechnic Orchestra. It's more about playing together than aiming at a professional level.’

eager to sleep more nights in a tent than in a bed in the summer. ‘This summer, I have for example gone trekking, bicycled to the Arctic Sea and gone kayaking.’

a climber. ‘I have always climbed up trees. The last few years, I have been systematic about it, and climb not only trees but also walls.’

English translation by Susanna Bell

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