The Rise of the Computer: An Engineer’s Perspective

I am a software engineer who has been working as one for more than 15 years. I mostly work with data, and write the programs to do the analysis on it based on the art of others. Before I became a software engineer, I earned a degree in Electrical Engineering. I spent the first 4 years after getting my degree in the USAF as an intelligence analyst for radars. I was “Jack Ryan” in the office with old furniture, papers and computers. I was not James Bond.

I read a post on xrayvsn.com, where he spoke about burnout and how that could impact his specialty, Radiologists. Similarly, my best friend is a cancer surgeon, and I’ve been exposed to the medical world through our friendship. The surgeon and I have been friends since junior high school, and my familiarity with the medical world is one of the reasons I enjoy reading xrayvsn.com. What he talks about is similar to some of the conversations my friend and I have. When I read this post, it triggered a lot of thoughts about technology, time, and people.

In the old days, think the Roman Empire and earlier civilizations, engineers were what we now associate with the Army Corps of Engineers, in other words Civil Engineers. They made bridges and roads. Some could argue what we now call mechanical engineering also would come into play; the study and understanding of materials, and how to apply them. Over time, that applied mathematical approach to making objects extended more and more into other aspects of a persons life as art became science. While any engineer will still tell you that there is beauty and art in our work, the fact is that for centuries, the sense of art used as the word skill was replaced by mathematics. We don’t guess anymore; we use equations. As they said in the Apollo program, “In God we trust, all others bring data.”

I once saw a documentary about a generational project in France where they are building a castle using what we think are the same techniques that were used in the 1300s. Even then, as Europe emerged from the Dark Ages, masons and other technical people were using geometry and math to build the great castles and cathedrals that adorn Europe. That was the rise of the modern engineer, perhaps the rebirth, as the Greeks and Romans likely did the same millennia earlier, as proven by the Antikythera mechanism. That device is a remarkable piece of machinery, and has to be seen to be believed. The knowledge contained within it was lost for 1600 years.

As the Renaissance led to the Enlightenment, and the two together laid the groundwork for the industrial revolution, great changes for humanity would follow. But let’s stop here for a minute. Thinking of the life of a farmer before the industrial revolution, the life of most people was hard. When it rained right amount and nature was kind, there was still illness and wars to contend with. I wonder, when the weather was not kind, or plague ravaged the area, did that not cause a burnout of it’s own? Perhaps, did that lead to the cruelty of the Dark Ages?

As the Industrial Revolution took root in the world, so engineering finally started to grow up. Fed by the increasing knowledge and most crucially by concept of the Scientific Method, people started applying this thought process to other areas. Charles Babbage is considered by most to be the father of computing. He also helped encourage the idea of the division of labor. When you break down tasks from the difficult ones to the easier ones, you can give the easier ones to lower skilled people to do, and keep the higher skilled, and thus more expensive people, doing the difficult things. Computers are the ultimate expression of that idea.

The term computers actually referred to people who did calculations, and even NASA hired people, mostly women, to do math. The modern electronic computer replaced them, and as time has gone by engineers have made them more and more capable. At it’s core, a computer breaks down complicated tasks to simple yes and no questions that can be answered by voltage and current. The components are very small, and signals travel very fast in wires, so we can get complicated answers to complicated questions more quickly than a person with a pen and paper.

So what am I trying to tell you? As time goes by, computers will likely keep getting more powerful. People are smart and will find new ways to use them. People will find ways to break down complicated tasks so that computers can do what humans used to. In my area, all the fast food restaurants are converting cashiers to kisoks. This is basically a new use for tablet computers, which themselves are new ways to use laptop computers and so on.

Computers are not being upgraded alone, and to consider them alone is to miss out on other parts of the puzzle. Take a look at Boston Dynamics‘ robots. Sure you may have heard about their dog like robot that the Marines and the Army are considering to use as a modern pack animal where wheeled vehicles can not go. Do you know about their robots that can move boxes and unload trucks? We’ve all heard that the big auto manufacturers have been using robots in the construction of vehicles for decades, but can they do other jobs? The answer is yes, and primarily the matter is cost. Which is cheaper the human or the robot? As humans get more expensive, like in fast food restaurants, you will see more, as we have already, machines take their place.

In truth the rise of the machines, if you will excuse the pun, has been hurting people for a long time. Did not the early industrial machines try to make people machines? I recall the stories from my grandmother and others in her generation about the conditions in the factories in Brooklyn now a century ago. Child labor was legal, and wages were low. Poverty was severe, and I ask you, did that not play a part in our problems with alcohol? Was that not a factor in what led to the Prohibition movement in America? Did burned out factory workers, who were tasked to work like machines not drown their troubles in alcohol? Ken Burn’s documentary Prohibition certainly gave me that impression. My own families stores added to that anecdotally as well.

Now we have the information economy. Jobs like xrayvsn.com are getting harder and harder. Insurance companies want doctors to work faster and faster. Does this not sound like the robber barrons of old? Are they trying again to turn people into machines? Will a machine be able to learn to do even that job?

Consider stealth technology, and how it works with radar. Radars are like people shining flashlights shining in the dark; perhaps searchlights is a better analogy. Stealth shapes reflect the light away from the search light , and radars use electromagnetic waves just as light is. Since the light is reflected away, you can’t see it. By the time of the B-2, we figured out how to put coating on the jet to adsorb the light, making it harder still. There’s a catch, though, stealth is tuned to one or a few frequencies. So the trick is to use other frequencies to see if they can get bounced back to the radar. To use our human with a flashlight analogy, perhaps blue light would be bounced away from you, but red would bounce back. Thus, if we use multiple narrow frequencies, we might be able to see what our original blue light could not. That’s multispectrical imaging and I found a paper from 2017 that NASA has showing some of the intended uses of it including medical imaging. This is one of a great many.

The type of electromagnetic waves, from X-ray to visible to radio does not matter. You just need different equipment to use it. The military, and even commerce, have desires for robotic and automatic detection of objects. The difficult part is teaching the computer to see what’s in the image. Ironically, most people are probably helping with this process. Have you ever highlighted the face of a friend or family member in a picture in FaceBook? Guess what, then you are, for free, helping to train a machine to do image recognition. 20 years ago when I was in the USAF, this was all done by humans, but then computers could not do what they can do today. Today, there are even more spy satellites taking even more pictures making the need even greater to identify the next threat. Police are using it today, and business want to.

How long until computers can do what a radiologist can do? How long until we trust machines to drive cars? I don’t know. The problem is that the better machines get, the harder people will have to work to make themselves more valuable than the machines. Could this be leading to more doctors burnout? Could this be leading to the burnout of people in other professions? Is this a contributor to the opium epidemic? Is this not the same problem we had with alcohol a century ago, and perhaps still have?

I am not all doom and gloom. The end is not near. How do I know this, I come to this conclusion by the same evidence I have just given you. For those previous difficult events led to better times after them. I would still be facing burnout today than in the other eras I have discussed. It does mean that FIRE is even more important than people realize, because that gives us options. We need to keep abreast of how technology is changing things so that we can adjust to the changing times. We can take comfort in the fact that times have always been changing, and that those who prepare can adapt. That, after all, is what nature does through evolution.

Advertisements