How Artificial Intelligence Is Going to Transform the Engineers' Jobs

In an exclusive interview, David Wood, Futurist, Chair of London Futurists, and Peter Jackson, Software Engineer member of London Futurists, share with us how Artificial Intelligence is going to impact the future of engineers' jobs and how to prepare for it.
Susan Fourtané
Smart factory ipopba/iStock 

An engineer checking and controlling welding robotics automatic arms machines in an intelligent industrial automotive factory using a monitoring system software used to belong to the science fiction realm. 

However, this is the reality of digital manufacturing operations in today's Industry 4.0 smart factories. Industry 4.0 is a concept that originated in Germany and is related to the integration of Internet of Things (IoT) and Machine-to-Machine (M2M) technology with networking and analytics with industry processes.

Another ingredient in Industry 4.0 is Artificial Intelligence, one of the fastest growing emerging technologies with a market expected to reach $70 billion by 2020. Artificial Intelligence is transforming jobs across all industries already, a tendency that is increasing. Naturally, humans' fear is on the rise. 

The adoption of extreme automation, AI, robotics, as well as extreme connectivity will continue to put pressure on low and middle-skilled workers. On the other hand, we are going to see an increase in demand for really skilled and adaptable professionals in the industry. 

Futurists and industry analysts anticipate the creation of new companies and sectors as well as new positions that not yet exist. 

The first jobs affected by automation include clerical work, sales, customer service, and support functions. Robotic process automation, automatic reporting, and virtual assistants are becoming increasingly more common. 

Automation also takes over insurance processing, incoming customer queries, and customer calls. Robo-advisors can go quickly through millions of emails; they can dramatically cut the cost of legal investigations.

We can also expect to see a decrease in managerial positions as a result of the absence of lower and middle-skilled workers. These workers now must re-skill into tasks that extreme automation cannot perform. Or, they can also move into other industries in order to avoid unemployment.

Artificial Intelligence is inevitably evolving into yet more advanced Natural Language Processing (NLP). This means that higher-skilled workers who do routine tasks may also be at risk. However, futurists don't expect this Fourth Industrial Revolution to result in an aggregate increase in global unemployment. In time, evolution and adaptation are going to play their part. 

One thing is certain: There is no time to waste fighting change. Now it is time to embrace change and flexibility. These are the keys to success in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. After all, change cannot exist without evolution. 

So, what is there to do? To dive into the future, into how Artificial Intelligence is going to change, transform, and evolve the engineers' jobs I sat down with David Wood, D.Sc., Futurist, Chair of London Futurists, member of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET) Board of Directors, author of Transcending Politics: A technoprogressive roadmap to a comprehensively better future, and Sustainable Superabundance: A Universal Transhumanist Invitation, and Peter Jackson, Software Engineering Consultant and active member of London Futurists.

The interview, edited for length here below, took place after a London Futurists meeting in London, England.

How is Artificial Intelligence going to affect the engineers' jobs?  

Peter Jackson: As an engineer, I would say that throughout my life it has been a process of constantly adapting to changes in technology. So, an engineer's life is never static. One is always learning new skills in order to keep up with changes in the ways where developments actually happen. If one has to be a software engineer, or if one is another sort of engineer there will be several technological changes which will affect the course of their career. The job of an engineer, in a way, is to make ourselves redundant. 

David Wood: One thing that is different with engineers in the next couple of decades compared to the past is the pace at which engineers will have to learn new skillsIn the past, people who wanted to do well in their career needed to be able to adapt to the changes in tools and technologies. But they will have to do it more quickly in the future than in the past.

What kind of new skills do engineers will need to learn?

Peter Jackson: Learning how to learn. Rather than getting entrenched in a particular way of working or using a particular set of tools, being always open to developing techniques with the latest tools that are available. 

David Wood: The three skills that everybody is going to need in the near future are how to live with robots, how to work alongside robots, and then how to design work so that the interaction between humans and robots is better. Engineers are going to need all of these skills, frankly. 

The ones who are going to do very well are the ones who understand the possibilities of the technology but then design that in a way that human engineers can work best with that technology. But not just collaborating more with technology. I think it is also collaborating with each other. 

Because no individual is going to be able to understand all the different possible tools and techniques that might be relevant for them to do better in their jobs. The skill that is going to be critical there is the skill of figuring out the right communities, the right partners, the right people in the communities who can help people to stay very current with the knowledge. 

And last but not least, to be a bit controversial. I think the skill of emotional intelligence is going to become critical. Because, without the self-courage to embrace change, without the willingness to try something risky people are more readily going to get more often stuck in a rut. Sometimes this is called a soft skill. But frankly, for success in the future more of us are going to need this particular soft skill.

How do you see the collaboration between humans and machines in the future when humans will have to co-live and co-work with Artificial General Intelligence (AGI)? 

Peter Jackson: As the machine technology advances, in a sense it becomes more human-like in the way that it interacts with the people that are using it. And, just as one develops a certain empathy for the people one is working with, particularly as a certain kind of engineer one develops certain empathy with the machines with whom one works also. 

On the ethics of Artificial Intelligence . . .   

David Wood: To me, ethics means something we could do but we decide not to do it. It also means paying careful attention to issues of safety and fairness. But even more than that, it also means ensuring that we have maximum possible benefits when you measure benefits widely and you are not just pursuing a profit, for example, on the bottom line. 

So, it's quite a wide topic. In the past, we often shrugged aside ethics and said it doesn't really impact jobs very much. But frankly, with the pace of change that is coming and with the set of rich possibilities ahead we will have to think harder about ethics.

Peter Jackson: Not only you do have to choose carefully what not to do that sometimes you have to ensure that you make sure that you do the right thing in whatever context that makes sense. There are some ways in which technologies can develop what it would be almost criminal not to take advantage of what's available to improve the human condition.

David Wood: In the short-term some people might say they don't want to adopt a particular technology because it's going to leave people with less work to do. On the other hand, that technology might enable goods, services to be delivered or created more cheaply and with higher quality.  And frankly, I think that's the bigger picture.

I don't look forward to a world in which everybody is working flat out 40 hours a week or more. I look forward to a world in which people are working less often, small amounts of time, and automation is producing lots of goods and services for all of us more reliably. If that means less hours in employment I personally think it's not a bad thing but something we should actually welcome.

Is distributing a Universal Basic Income the answer to balance more automated jobs and less work hours? 

David Wood: On the question of ensuring that people who aren't working so many hours still have a sufficient income, I think the ultimate thing that is required here isn't so much soft skills but it is more political skills.  

What I mean by that is, unless we are able to change society's social contract which will then look more generously at the needs of people who are not working, without judging them as being inadequate or second class citizens or even third class citizens. Unless we can have that transformation, we might end up in a situation of great inequality, technological unemployment, and technological underemployment. 

And the way to fix that is not somehow to expect people to learn new skills to make them more capable than the robots and the AI, and the algorithms. It is to ensure that society redistributes effectively and fairly the abundance which is generated by automation. 

And that is going to require politics as well as engineering; rather, is going to require an engineering of politics, which is perhaps the future of some engineers.  

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