How long before Watson comes to engineering, and what will be the impact when it does?

  • By Paul Gruhn
  • Automation
How long before Watson comes to engineering, and what will be the impact when it does?

By Paul Gruhn, PE

Hundreds of years ago, experienced master builders knew everything about their craft, designing and overseeing the building of pyramids, cathedrals, and bridges. Now the world is vastly more complicated, and no single person can know everything in a professional field.

For example, in the early twentieth century, to become a doctor required a high school diploma and a one-year medical degree. By the end of the century, doctors needed a college degree, a four-year medical degree, and three-to-seven years residency training, which some believe is not enough. A doctor could spend all waking moments reading medical journals attempting to stay up to date. Unfortunately, there is too much information to absorb, and patients need to be treated.

The same is true in engineering, with debate about whether four years of college is enough or additional education should be required. Engineering has as many specialty fields as medicine. Think how many specialties there are in the field of process automation alone: analyzers, instrumentation, valves, control systems, control theory, alarm management, interface design, functional safety, cybersecurity, and more. No single person can know all these topics in depth. Companies may not be able to find and hire specialists in every field. Experienced baby boomers are retiring from industry, creating a skills gap. What is industry to do?

Enter computers and artificial intelligence. IBM's Deep Blue computer beat Garry Kasparov in chess in 1997. IBM developed Watson, which won in Jeopardy in 2011. IBM then applied Watson in the field of medicine. Imagine what a doctor could do with access to every known ailment and treatment. Watson has such access, and doctors and nurses are starting to take advantage of it. If your doctors had access to Watson when treating you, would you want them to?

How long will it be before Watson - or something like it - makes it to the field of engineering? Probably not long. What will it mean to engineers when it does? What is the impact of Watson on doctors now and in the near future? If Watson knows everything, and you have access to it, just what are you going to study in school?

Think how our lives, learning, and knowledge have changed just in the past few decades with current technology. Rather than remembering our friends' phone numbers, they are stored on our cell phones. People in my parent's generation could do math calculations in their heads, but with today's calculators we no longer have to burden ourselves. How many remember the multiplication tables? We used to remember how to drive somewhere, but GPS navigation has almost turned people into automatons. Driverless cars will probably mean that we will no longer even know how to do that. Engineers use many different design software packages, yet how many can duplicate or verify what the software is telling them? Would you want to drive across a new bridge designed by someone who could not verify what the design software recommended?

There are people in LinkedIn forums with titles implying they are in a responsible position. Yet they are asking innocent questions that clearly indicate they do not have the knowledge required to do their job. Rather than take the time to learn the topic, they merely ask strangers online (almost like asking baby -  Watson). Is this what the field of medicine and engineering are being reduced to? If doctors and engineers have access to Watson, what do they really need to know themselves? Heck, why even have the person in the middle at all? I will just skip the doctor and ask Watson myself. The drug store will eventually be automated and will dispense the medicine I need. Robots will eventually be able to perform the surgery I need, so why will we need surgeons? What will we need taxi and truck drivers for if vehicles become autonomous?

We are getting eerily close to the singularity with artificial intelligence. We may have just engineered ourselves out of existence.

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About The Authors

Paul Gruhn, PE, CFSE is the 2019 ISA society president and a global functional safety consultant with aeSolutions in Houston, Texas.