Will A.I. make engineers redundant?

I’ve heard it said many times, if the industrial revolution was about amplifying muscle power, the information revolution is about amplifying brain power. More than that, it is about amplifying computation and dealing with incomprehensible amounts of data and complexity to find fresh insights into our world.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) are the modern-day equivalent to the steam engine. The roll out of these two broad technologies will fundamentally change life as we know it. Except, instead of it happening over 150 years like the industrial revolution, it’s predicted to happen in just 20 to 40 years.

The trouble is, when a computer can start to do almost everything better than us, what will humans do? I’ve asked various commentators in industry and answers vary. Some tell me that we might have more free time, others that we will simply make up new jobs like an ‘ethicist’, referencing that HR never used to exist either.

The big question is, could engineers become redundant? Surely not. Could a supercomputer really do your job better? And if it can, can AI and the engineer co-exist?

Autodesk, for example, is looking to develop AI enabled design software that will be a tool for the engineer, to help guide you towards more ‘optimal’ solutions. I just hope it’s not as annoying as the paper clip office assistant in Microsoft Word. Other companies, like simulation specialist ANSYS are keen to keep engineers in the driving seat and limit the use of AI... at least for now.

There is no doubt the role of the engineer is set to change, but that’s nothing new. It’s always evolving. The big shift I expect to see is engineering moving from being more analytical to creative. It's entirely possible stress engineers, for example, may become a dying bread. Or perhaps they're role is set to evolve fairly dramatically as new tools become available. It could be likened to drafts men 50 years ago. Not all gone, but the role has dramatically evolved as CAD tools have become so prevalent.

While we might not be able to compete in term of computation, personified by AI beating us at Chess and now Go, design is a uniquely human quality that requires a creative mind. For the most part, this is something AI struggles to contend with, creativeness. Perhaps, that is because creativity is so subjective. It is the definition of being human and is quite often illogical.

It means the engineer is safe for now, but how long before AI produces a No.1 record or a Turner Prize winner? My bet, unfortunately, is sooner than you think, but without doubt it will require a huge chunk of help from engineers and creative minds to make it happen.

Justin Cunningham, Editor

Justin Cunningham

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