Surviving the digital apocalypse. Why aren’t we talking about the vulnerability of engineering?
Computers are faster, more accurate, and have more capacity for calculations than humans. When it comes to engineering outputs, this also makes them safer. Calculations will be the first step in the digitisation of an engineer’s workload. It will happen rapidly, and it will be just the beginning.
Automation of calculations is already happening, but true disruption is held at bay by the traditional nature of the industry. While values such as responsibility, accountability and excellence will always be upheld, there are many industry attributes that make it resistant to change. But new generations are entering the workforce. They are agile, adaptable, quick to adopt technology, and within their lifetime will experience, and lead, the next evolution in engineering. Furthermore the next generation of Engineers are not focused on gaining long term knowledge to protect their careers and longevity within one company or domain, they are focused on short term projects and experiences.
What does the future look like?
Imagine you need to build a bridge. You want to build in steel, over the river Thames. Simply input those two variables and your computer will do all the possible calculations on all the possible options. It will immediately leverage thousands of years of engineering knowledge to give you validated options, even down to aesthetics. In short, while the engineers of the past had statues dedicated to them for building bridges, the engineers of the future will have statues dedicated to them for building the software that can build every possible bridge.
But computers can’t do everything
Human calculations may become a thing of the past, but responsibility, accountability, professional excellence and ethics will remain the cornerstones of the professional engineer. Engineers will become the face of the computer. They will be interpreters accountable to society, and non-typical skills such as communication and relationship building will become increasingly important.
Some companies and professional engineering bodies are slowly aligning themselves to this way of thinking. But as we know from other industries such as software, change will arrive, and when it does it will be exponential. We need to promote a greater level of discussion on the possibilities and risks that digitalisation presents for our profession in the near future.