Month: April 2015

Engineers are slow, error-prone…

Professor Kristina Shea speaking in Munich

Professor Kristina Shea speaking in Munich

‘Engineers are slow, error-prone, biased, limited in experience and conditioned by education; and so we want to automate to increase reliability.’  This my paraphrasing of  Professor Kristina Shea speaking at a workshop in Munich last year.  At first glance it appears insulting to my profession but actually it is just classifying us with the rest of the human race.  Everybody has these attributes, at least when compared to computers.  And they are major impediments to engineers trying to design and manufacture systems that have the high reliability and low cost expected by the general public.

Professor Shea is Head of the Engineering Design and Computing Laboratory at ETH Zurich.  Her research focuses on developing computational tools that enable the design of complex engineered systems and products.  An underlying theme of her work, which she was talking about at the workshop, is automating design and fabrication processes to eliminate the limitations caused by engineers.

Actually, I quite like these limitations and perhaps they are essential because they represent the entropy or chaos that the second law of thermodynamics tells us must be created in every process.  Many people have expressed concern about the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) capable of designing machines smarter than humans, which would quickly design even smarter machines that we could neither understand nor control.  Chaos would follow, possibly with apocalyptic consequences for human society.  To quote the British mathematician, IJ Good (1916-2009), “There would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion’, and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.”  Stephen Cave in his essay ‘Rise of machines’ in the FT on March 20th, 2015, citing James Barrat  suggested that “artificial intelligence could become super-intelligence in a matter of days, as it fixes its own bugs, rewriting its software and drawing on the wealth of information now available online”.

The decisions that we make are influenced, or even constrained, by a set of core values, unstated assumptions and what we call common sense which are very difficult to express in prose never mind computer code.  So it seems likely that an ultra-intelligent machine would lack some or all of these boundary conditions with the consequences that while  ‘To err is human, to really foul things up you need a computer.’  To quote Paul R. Ehrlich.

Hence, I would like to think that there is still room for engineers to provide the creativity.  Perhaps Professor Shea is simply proposing a more sophisticated version of the out-of-skull thinking I wrote about in my post on March 18th, 2015.


Follow the link to Kristina Shea’s slides from the workshop on International Workshop on Validation of Computational Mechanics Models.

Stephen Cave, Rise of the machines, Essay in the Financial Times on 21/22 March, 2015.

James Barrat, ‘Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era‘, St Martins Griffin, 2015

Life takes engineering

changingconversationTeachers change lives.  Doctors cure, nurses care. Firemen are heroic.  What do engineers do?  Engineers shape the future.

Most of the things that engineers do are taken for granted.  I would like to think that we are so good at it that people don’t notice anymore.  Occasionally things go wrong and we get the blame but almost everything you do in life from the moment you are born is shaped by engineering.  A structural engineer designed the structure in which you were born, a team of mechanical engineers designed the vehicle you made your first journey in, if you needed medication a team of chemical engineers designed the factory that produced them and so on through life.  You can repeat the process for an average day – who designed the production system that made the bed you slept on, the alarm clock that woke you, runs the utilities that provided hot water to wash in, designed the supply chain that delivered food to your breakfast table and so on through the day?  Yes, engineers.

Maybe engineering is so ubiquitous that it is difficult to grasp its essence.  The engineering community spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually to promote public understanding of engineering with little measurable impact on young people, according to the US National Academy of Engineering.  Their report called ‘Changing the Conversation‘ recommends using four tag-lines to promote engineering:

1. Engineers make a world of difference.

2. Engineers are creative problem solvers.

3. Engineers help shape the future.

4. Engineering is essential to our health, happiness and safety.

About 40% of their survey groups found these tag-lines ‘very appealing’.  So perhaps none of them really resonated.  Oh, but now I am being an engineer and analysing the data in order to make a very rational, reasoned decision when instead I should be employing my creative, imaginative side.  Maybe we are back to poetaster engineers [see my posting on ‘Poetasting engineers‘ on March 4th, 2015].  As a profession we are not good with words [see last week’s posting entitled ‘Reader, Reader, Reader] and cannot dream up a catchy memorable tag-line.

What do you think?

Reader, reader, reader!

annegreeneAt this time of year many university students are labouring over their dissertations. I have commented before about the difficulties that engineers seem to have in expressing themselves eloquently. So, I thought that I should offer some simple guidance.

The title of this post is the first piece of guidance. Real estate agents like to use the adage ‘location, location, location’ when talking about the relative importance of the features of properties. For technical writing it can be adapted to ‘reader, reader, reader’ – in other words, you have to think about your reader whenever you are writing.

There are lots of books about writing, and although some are admirably short, most engineers and engineering students do not read them. Maybe there is a clue there as to why engineers tend not to write material that is read by others. One of the shortest and most concise of these books is by Anne Greene called ‘Writing Science in Plain English’. I have summarised it below as a simple mnemonic:

R – Reader, reader, reader. Ok, we have done this one already. Anne prefers ‘audience, audience, audience’ (page 36) but that’s American and doesn’t work as well as a mnemonic.

E – [readers] Enjoy a story with a subject that takes rather than receives actions. See Anne on story-telling in science writing (page 12) and on using active rather than passive verbs (page 22).

A – [readers] Appreciate short, non-technical words. See Anne on using short, old words which are used frequently in spoken English (page 30). Introduce technical words slowly and only if absolutely necessary (page 36).

D – [readers] Digest new information when it follows old in sentences that vary in length. See Anne on providing familiar information at the start of a sentence and building on it through the sentence (page 52). But, don’t write strings of long sentences (more than 30 words); see Anne on varying sentence length (page 63).

E – [readers] Expect paragraphs to have a consistent structure with issue, development and conclusion. See Anne on paragraph structure and making the point at the end of the introductory paragraph(s) (page 71).

R – [readers] Remember the last thing that they read, so build arguments progressively from the least to the most important evidence. See Anne on developing persuasive arguments (page 78).

Finally, many of the technical reports that I am expected to read do not appear to have been read by the author because they are littered with typographical, grammatical and stylistic errors. So Read, Edit, Add and Delete (READ).

By the way, Anne also advises that we use ‘parallel lists’ (see page 60). By which she means lists in which the items have a consistent structure, such as in my mnemonic ‘READER’ above.


Greene, A.E., Writing science in plain English, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2013.

Williams, J., Style: toward clarity and grace, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1995.

Where there is muck there is an engineer

Dr Lou Balmer-Millar at the FPC 2015 & the CAT 366E

Dr Lou Balmer-Millar at the FPC 2015 & the CAT 366E

Here’s a second post on what engineers do [see my post entitled ‘Press button for exciting ride‘ on March 25th, 2015].

Dr Lou Balmer-Millar leads a team that develops new technology for off-road vehicles.  She is Director of Research and Advanced Engineering at Caterpillar Inc. and she gave a keynote talk at the  Future Powertrains Conference, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.  She talked about the innovations that Caterpillar are developing to increase the efficiency of their vehicles.  This includes driverless giant trucks.  If you are worried about driverless cars then what about driverless 226 tonnes trucks?  It is already a reality –   watch the Caterpillar video.

However, what stuck in my mind from her presentation was not the enormous mining trucks but the way in which Caterpillar measure the efficiency of their diggers, such as the CAT 366E Hybrid.  They are not so much interested in miles per gallon as tonnes of dirt (or muck) shifted per gallon.  Efficiency is defined as what you want out of a machine divided by what you have to put in to a machine, or work done for energy supplied [see post entitled ‘Energy efficiency‘ on June 18th, 2014].  So for a passenger car, miles travelled divided by energy used is a reasonable measure of efficiency.  But for digger, tonnes of earth moved is what you are want done, so tonnes moved per gallon is the right measure of efficiency.   The machine in the picture does not look like anything special but Caterpillar claim it is 30% more efficient than its competitors.

So there is money to be made in shifting earth more efficiently than your competitors.  If you enjoy watching machines move earth the watch this video.

Photo credit: Joshua Tucker

Trees are made of air

162-6273_IMGYes, it is April Fools Day but I am serious.  Trees are made of air.  Think about it.  What happens when they are burned?  You are left with a small pile of ash.  So where did the rest of the tree go?  When the tree ‘is burned, in the flaming heat is released the flaming heat of the sun which was bound in to convert air into the tree’.  These words are from Richard Feynman, who explains it much better than me.  Watch him on Youtube.


Max Tegmark, Our Mathematical Universe, Penguin Books Ltd, 2014.

National Public Radio blog