Are robots a threat to engineers?

-March 20, 2017

Bill Gates created a minor kerfuffle recently when he proposed that robots be taxed. "If a human worker does $50,000 of work in a factory, that income is taxed," said Gates. “If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you'd think we'd tax the robot at a similar level."

Economists have been skeptical.  Former Treasury Secretary and economist Larry Summers blasted the idea in a recent editorial, by saying, “First, I cannot see any logic to singling out robots as job destroyers. What about kiosks that dispense airplane boarding passes? Word-processing programs that accelerate the production of documents? Mobile banking technologies? Autonomous vehicles? Vaccines that, by preventing disease, destroy jobs in medicine?”  

Fair enough. Though Gates’ proposal may not be the best method for society to deal with robots, it is indicative of the angst many feel that automation is destroying middle class jobs. Indeed, multiple analyses have indicated that the decline in US manufacturing jobs is dominated by automation, not foreign competition. The math is pretty solid in this regard.  In EETimes, Senior Technical Editor Martin Rowe penned a column, Could engineers be accused of killing jobs?  The variety and intensity of comments show that Martin hit a nerve.

Perhaps it a bit unfair to liken engineers to Shiva the Destroyer.  But, could the destroyer become the destroyed? That is, could engineers become threatened themselves, by their own invention?

A future robotic engineer sits at its workbench. Is this the eventual future of engineering? Image snippets courtesy of Public Domain Pictures and PXI System Alliance.

At first look, this seems unlikely. Classical examples of robots revolve around mechanical precision and dexterity. Think pick-and-place machines and robotic welding. Perfectly repeatable and precise.  Engineering is a cerebral profession, not one where the value-added is derived from mechanical skills. Sure, who hasn’t held a probe onto a tiny trace with one hand while initiating a measurement with another, but this skill isn’t why engineers exist. Engineers exist to design and debug complex products.

So we’re safe.

Or are we? When we expand our definition of robots past the Lost in Space B-9, we see automation affecting all sorts of engineering. SPICE, MatLab, and even spreadsheets have accelerated complex analyses. Printed circuit boards can be designed with automated routing algorithms. My first integrated circuit designs required manually manipulating rectangles. Now ASIC designers use high-level programming languages to define a chip’s functionality. FPGAs even allow the instant reprogramming of a chip without a months-long mask cycle.  I can search for parts and specifications immediately on-line, without having to go through a specialized buyer. The list keeps going on and on...

Are these threats or just great productivity enhancements, allowing engineers to do what they do best- design?  Since engineering design is a creative discipline, the argument goes, these productivity tools just make each engineer more productive, and thus more valuable.  After all, you don’t see writers replaced merely because word processors are ubiquitous, do you?  

Careful there.  Actually, writers are being replaced by automation. Associated Press has partnered with Automated Insights to write earnings stories. AP now produces over 3500 earnings articles each quarter, 12 times more than those being created by humans employed at AP, with far fewer errors. Essentially, AP is claiming higher output with perfectly repeated precision. Sound familiar? AP has subsequently announced that they will use automated writing to cover minor league baseball. Perhaps even creativity is ready for the robotic big leagues.

Could the same dynamic affect engineers? Could more and more routine engineering designs be automated completely, leaving only the more complex system designs to be addressed? For the record, I remain skeptical. But fast forward 20 years with the expected improvements due to Moore’s Law and AI (artificial intelligence), and perhaps we shouldn’t be so sanguine. An interesting side effect of this scenario is, presumably, the pace of engineering accelerates overall. Machines design faster and smarter machines, and engineering accelerates once again. We eventually reach the heralded singularity.

Crazy thought or potential threat?  What do you think?

Larry Desjardin is a regular contributor to EDN's Test Cafe. He served in several R&D and executive management positions with Hewlett-Packard and Agilent Technologies.

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