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In spite of issues of excessive screen time, I think most people would say the smart phone has had a very positive impact on their lives. There are countless apps that can be downloaded that make our life easier, more interesting, more fun, and/or more informed.

But … I am of the opinion that the smart phone is one of the biggest threats to any engineering career. And the very way we are taught to think and solve problems is contributing to that thinking.

I recently went to a talk about future technologies. One speaker talked about how someone had developed an app that would

+ select a suburb

+ search for property prices

+ search for material costs and labour prices

+ search for population trend statistics

+ develop some simple housing profiles of new homes that could be built

And then (and this is the “scary” part)

+ create all drawings needed for construction

+ estimate all materials needed

+ schedule all pertinent labour

+ develop a cost estimate for the completed house, including clearing and land acquisition

<and behind me, I heard one loud whisper say … “That’s my job!”>

I did not track down that person, but it was clear from the tone of the statement that they were concerned about their job and job future. In thinking about it, that person could transition into something more customised like vintage home restoration (possibly seamlessly) but some change would be needed to survive. And when is likely to be now.

How are we contributing to this “problem”? Well … as engineers, we tend to modularise our problems, and our solutions. We tend to make drawing modules (for example, what valves and instruments are needed for a pump). It makes it easy and cost effective to implement a solution because we have seen most of it (or all of it) before and we know what worked. Unfortunately, anything that can be modularised can be converted into an app.

Looking ahead to the future, I do not see a light at the end of the tunnel. The students I am teaching have spent several years learning “this is the way to do this, this is the way to do that”, etc. I am amazed at how many “really good students” turn out to be only capable of entering numbers into their calculator. It makes my job extremely rewarding to see them actually “get it”.

I am convinced the way to stay ahead of an app is to understand why.  Understanding is something an app can not due yet (and it will take many advances in artificial intelligence before an app can understand). I am trying to do my part in my training deliver – both industrial and academic – I find it my job to convey comprehension. It is difficult, but incredibly rewarding.