Has the value of Engineers been disrupted?

This article explores why the future of engineering will require a combination of machine and human computation approaches, from an ethical but also a technical perspective. How can engineering professionals contribute value to their organisations through digital technologies and ensure their skills remain relevant and valuable?
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Has the value of Engineers been disrupted?

By CORE Skills Catalyst and Pilot Lead Dr Sophie Hancock and Atteris General Manager Eric Jas.

This article explores why the future of engineering will require a combination of machine and human computation approaches, from an ethical but also a technical perspective. How can engineering professionals contribute value to their organisations through digital technologies and ensure their skills remain relevant and valuable?


A pre-eminent profession, bringing people to the forefront

Engineers continue to be relied upon to find better ways of doing things – a professional responsibility engineers have shouldered since the beginning of civilisation. Engineering is involved in virtually every good and service consumed or used in production.

“No profession unleashes the spirit of innovation like engineering. From research to real world applications, engineers constantly discover how to improve our lives by creating bold new solutions that connect science to life in unexpected, forward thinking ways” (The National Academies Press, 2018).

Australia has doubled its digital growth over the last five years, however asset intensive Australian sectors continue to have lower levels of digitisation than their peers in the United States.

Almost every sector that encompasses engineering is facing significant challenges due to digital transformation as it is often coupled with increasing operational costs.  It is creating complex, additional demands on people, processes, assets, and productivity within organisations.

To build an intelligent, digitised nation, we need innovative engineers who can leverage their deep technical domain expertise along with latest advances in technology - and connect this with innate human needs and emotions.

Aurecon’s Global Managing Director – Design, Innovation & Eminence, Dr Kourosh Kayvani advocates the need for engineers who embrace more unconventional smarts.

“These engineers will need social savvy, creativity and flexibility. They must be more engaging, persuasive, collaborative or co-creative – traits not normally associated with stereotypical, introverted engineers”

The wave of digital innovation is accelerating but creates new opportunities for those who are nimble to take advantage of the transformation. The companies and individuals that will benefit l will be those equipping themselves with the skills and tools to operate in a disrupted digital world.

Constructing digital capabilities

Roles in almost every field of engineering endeavour are being disrupted by productive advances in digital technology. Applications and service platforms facilitated by core ICT technologies, network connectivity, available computation and storage technologies, are infiltrating almost every corner of engineering activity, including designing, modelling, manufacturing, consulting, collaborating, and educating.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the term for computer technology that uses sophisticated software to solve complex problems.

Many AI applications will be mainstream soon; consider fraud detection software in banking, home assistants or smart speakers, and face recognition technology among other applications on our smart phones.

Engineers have long used computer software to assist the design of structures. AI applications are just beginning to infiltrate our work, some examples given below:

  • Self-driving cars will impact the car industry and the infrastructure that cars use, including roads, traffic control systems, etc.
  • Intelligent structures monitor movement, stress, strain, and defaults in real-time, with the potential to foresee defaults before they occur. Applications include roads, bridges, buildings, pipelines, power cables, industrial facilities, subsea equipment, etc.
  • Automated equipment fixing problems upon receiving information a default has, or is about to, occur without human interference.

Whilst these new technologies may be seen as a threat to jobs, there lies an opportunity to create a competitive edge through adapting and being open to disruption.

Machine learning is a concept initiated by scientists with the hope of ultimately replicating the human brain, including its cognitive capacities. Computers are fast - unhindered by emotions or other factors influencing decision-making.  It’s a seemingly logical step to replace workers by computers.

In contrast, humans are strong in providing context, purpose and meaning, in planning and strategic thinking, which are typical emotional intelligence characteristics.

In his book “Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins”, Garry Kasparov concludes:

“I have argued that our technology can make us more human by freeing us to be more creative, but there is more to human beings than creativity. We have other qualities that machines cannot match. They have instructions while we have purpose. Machines cannot dream, not even in sleep mode. Humans can and will need our intelligent machines in order to turn our grandest dreams into reality. If we stop dreaming big dreams, if we stop looking for a greater purpose, then we may as well be machines ourselves”

By collaborating with AI and other digital technologies, humans inherently become better at performing in their professional roles.

To have meaningful, positive and lasting impact to address the digital and data challenges, the engineering profession needs both strong leadership and clarity of insight and analysis from their professional teams. Engineering needs increased emphasis on the development of interpersonal skills alongside digital skills to position them for the future.

CORE Skills believes combining existing domain knowledge and company context with the right skills will significantly empower individuals and their organisations to create and capitalise on new opportunities.

 We envisage customising our upcoming Geoscientist to Data Scientist pilot for our colleagues in engineering. The Geoscientist focused pilot is offering the energy, mining, and technology sectors specific capability building opportunities:

  • A 2-day executive education program aimed at a new type of senior leader who will successfully steer companies through the approaching transition, and
  • A 12-week, one day a week professionals program aimed at repurposing capability effectively to match evolving skills requirements.

It is imperative that engineers carefully consider the questions facing the future of their profession: what does the future of engineering look like? How can engineers contribute value to their organisations by embracing digital technologies? How will individuals ensure their skills remain both relevant and valuable?

We invite your views and experience on this evolving need of engineers. Please contact CORE Skills via the details at end of this article.


Operating at the interface: connecting human and tech

The engineering profession needs to evolves with the accelerated rate of digitisation and look to the rewards that can be reaped through   collaborating, upskilling and adopting innovative technologies and processes.

Perhaps engineers should embrace J.C.R. Licklider's concept of human-computer symbiosis, otherwise known as Intelligence Augmentation (I.A).

Licklider was a computer science titan who had a profound effect on the development of technology and the Internet.

Humans are quite incredible: how we think, our non-linear approaches, our creativity, iterative hypotheses, which are all very difficult, if at all possible, for computers to emulate. In other ways, humans are so limited. We're terrible at scale, computation and volume, and we require high-end talent management. Licklider foresaw computers doing all the routinisable work that was required to prepare the way for insights and decision making

Another stream of emergent technology looks at a shift from efficiency to co-creativity – from fitting people to outdated concepts of static job descriptions to enabling augmented connections between people as the individual and collective experience of flow to a shared life-work cause. This is about outsourcing tasks to technology and redefining our roles.

This digital transformation is challenging for individuals and organisations. How do we think proactively to ensure we are better prepared and therefore more comfortable with the transitions and challenges?

As pertinently pointed out by Australian National University Dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science, Elanor Huntington:

“Now more than ever we need engineers. The next great wave of engineers will be the people who are willing and able to engage in the complexity of bringing together people, technological systems and science in a highly distributed and interconnected world”


For more information about the CORE Skills data science programs, visit: http://corehub.com.au/skills/ or to share your view on the emerging needs of engineers, contact: [email protected].

To find out about Atteris, an independent engineering and design consultancy for subsea, pipeline and sustainable energy systems, visit: https://atteris.com.au/