Is Engineering an Endangered Job?

Published in IEEE Spectrum Magazine, May 2016

“The robots are coming for your jobs!”  That was the headline of the news report following the release of the report to the president on the economic state of the United States.

My first thought on reading this was that anyone who saw the videos of the clumsy robots falling helplessly during the recent DARPA robotics challenge must have been incredulous.  “That’s what’s coming after my job!?”
My second thought was more sobering.  Robots are only a subset of the computerization leading to the automation of traditional workplace jobs, and as engineers we see the steady progress in machine learning, artificial intelligence, and big data.  With this contemplation, it suddenly occurred to me to worry about engineering jobs.  Are they, too, threatened?

History has shown that while automation increases productivity and creates new jobs, it also displaces jobs. However, the president’s economic report notes that in recent decades the rate of job destruction has outpaced the rate of job creation, resulting in less overall participation in the work force.  Regardless, stopping or slowing technological advance has always been a fruitless exercise.  While we engineers may be responsible for implementing its advance, in a larger sense we seem powerless before its inevitable progression.  As technology’s handmaiden we would undoubtedly follow in complicit support even as it displaced our own engineering jobs.

A recent report by Professors Frey and Osborne of Oxford University examined the potential for technological disruption in 702 different occupations.  Their study concludes that 47% of the current US jobs are at risk of displacement.  In evaluating the risk for each occupation they estimated the relative technological bottleneck that would be encountered in automation efforts.  The bottleneck could occur in any of three different aspects of work in a given occupation – the need for perception and manipulation, the need for creative intelligence, and the need for social intelligence.

One of the occupations studied was listed as “computers, engineering, and science.”  Their data show it among the least threatened by automation, which they attribute to the high degree of creative intelligence required in science and engineering.  Nonetheless, they qualify this conclusion in a cautionary amplification, saying that although today the roles of the computer and human in these fields are complementary, it is possible that computers will fully substitute for workers in these occupations over the long run.”

Software development is singled out as particularly amenable to computerization.   Inasmuch as software is becoming an ever bigger component of engineering design and development, this might raise concerns whether this will remain a safe haven for future engineers.  However, even though software development involves the management and manipulation of symbols within a set of constraining rules, I suspect that fully automatic programming may be a more distant objective than that predicted by the economists. As an engineer, I always think that as lower level tasks are turned over to computers, we move up the stack to working at a higher level of functionality.  Accordingly, we keep our jobs.  But an economist might say that engineers then become more productive and that employers need fewer of them. 

There’s a lot more I’d like to say about this, but I have to run.  I hear clomping footsteps behind me.  I see a robot back there and I think it’s gaining on me.