In September 2021, the UK government announced its ten-year National AI Strategy to become a world leader in the sector. Considering the UK private technology sector received £13.5 billion in investment between January and June of this year, it seems like an obvious move.
Considering the ubiquity of AI across most sectors, it is worth considering the impact this strategy could have on the British engineering industry.
AI (or artificial intelligence) is a broad term that refers to the creation of machines capable of replicating intelligent human thought. Specifically, it relates to repetitive tasks that require human intelligence, such as data processing and construction. However, this line becomes more blurred by the day.
The four types of AI are reactive machines, limited memory, theory of mind, and self-awareness. Within these, we find concepts such as machine learning, evolutionary generative adversarial networks, and more. The concept of AI is far too complex to discuss in any depth here, but the bottom line is that all of us will have encountered it at some point.
AI’s history stretches back to the time of ancient philosophers, although the term was not coined until 1956. Since then, there have been ebbs and flows in interest in the subject, but the modern AI movement as we know it began around 1993. Since then, we have seen AI beat a chess grandmaster, win Jeopardy, beat the Turing test, and much more.
In some shape or form, AI has long existed in the field of engineering. Whether it is something “mundane” like Computer Aided Design (CAD) or something more complex like automated construction lines, AI and engineering regularly go hand-in-hand. If nothing else, AI requires engineers to exist.
AI comes into its own within engineering when we look at its potential for data processing and automation. While these are not the only skills it possesses, they are certainly the most useful. Using machine learning to gather data and look for patterns saves time and energy, freeing humans up for more complex jobs. The same is true for automation: if we can trust intelligent machines to automate processes, we have more time on our hands.
But, where does that leave us in the future? Should engineers be concerned about becoming redundant in their field of expertise? Simply put, no. Unlike some other industries, engineering would benefit from greater use of AI. According to an Oxford University study, engineering and science are two of the least threatened fields in the rise of AI.
Currently, AI’s limits come from its reliance on straightforward logic principles of if-then. It requires existing knowledge to function; even its “learning” comes from available data. As such, it cannot fully replicate the process of human cognition, and this is unlikely to change within the near future.
The biggest change to engineering that we will see is a greater switch to directors rather than actors. Human engineers will point AI machines in the right direction, allow them to do their thing, and then process the results accordingly. For now, at least, the world of engineering seeks to benefit greatly from the ubiquity of artificial intelligence.