Tech Must Ally with Other Disciplines in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

We are in the midst of unprecedented, exponentially accelerating innovation that is altering the way we work, live, interact and create. Fueled by technology, this innovation encompasses practically every discipline.

Many, particularly the World Economic Forum, believe that we are entering a new era, that of the Fourth Industrial Revolution — the era of convergence where the physical, chemical, biological, behavioral and increasingly, the social world will be integrated in unprecedented ways. Understanding that engineering, computer science and technology will be the enabling drivers, we have coined — for several years now — this convergence as “engineering + X” (X being whichever problem, discipline or arena in which engineers engage).

In describing this interdisciplinarity, I use James Maslow’s hierarchy to classify needs, opportunities and useful purposes. These are: sustainability, health, security, and (in a collective basket of its own), the joy of life. Convergence and engineering + X are necessary to address needs and advance useful purposes in each of these categories. Consider sustainability, where, for example, technology will need to partner with the natural sciences; health, where it must partner with medicine and biology; security, where it must partner with policy and law; and the joy of life, where it must partner with education, entertainment, communications, social and behavioral sciences and the arts.

Useful purposes invariably have unintended consequences, which are increasingly powerful as technology reaches higher peaks. Nuclear power was intended to advance sustainable energy — but is also being used for nuclear weapons. The internet and the communications revolution allowed unprecedented communication, self-empowerment, made the world a tighter-knit community and advanced mutual understanding and prosperity. But it has also enabled cyberattacks and the dissemination of hatred on social media.

There are concerns that artificial intelligence and machine learning — fundamental pillars of this technological revolution — will be on a collision course with humanity. Or, that advanced manufacturing will lead to a very different future of work.

Nevertheless, engineering, science and technology is leading the convergence of disciplines to solve to a great extent the fundamental questions of Maslow’s hierarchy, starting with the most essential: sustainability, health and security. In the process, it will free human activity towards resolving societal challenges, promoting the joy of life and the pursuit of happiness in terms of personal and societal growth. A slew of emerging technological breakthroughs will underpin this transformation from the Internet of Things to AI and machine learning, advanced manufacturing and biotechnology.

We, at engineering schools, will need to redouble our efforts to equip students with skills that yield intelligent, legal and ethical decisions. This is where the X in “engineering + X” represents humanity, empathy, character, judgement and values, both for individuals and society at large.

Consider the work of engineers at USC where I work: Milind Tambe uses AI in partnership with social work (X=social work) to thwart the spread of HIV among homeless youth, or applies AI to deter wildlife poaching. Maja Mataric’s research focuses on social assistive robots to help the elderly, sick children or those with autism (X=medicine). Nora Ayanian facilitates multi-robot communication for disasters (X=communication and policy). Shri Narayanan uses machine learning to curb addiction, computer vision to assess gender inequity in the media in partnership with the Geena Davis Institute (X=digital media) and to help foster communication in interpersonal relationships (X=psychology). Pedro Szekely and Prem Natarajan use “big AI” — knowledge graphs, machine learning, natural language processing and computer vision — to combat human trafficking (X=security and social justice). Ellis Meng and Andrea Armani are among the leaders in the convergence of biology and engineering in the newly opened Michelson Hall – a 190,000 square-foot, high-tech research facility supported by a $50 million gift from retired spinal surgeon Gary K. Michelson and his wife, Alya Michelson.

'A slew of emerging technological breakthroughs will underpin this transformation from the Internet of Things to AI and machine learning, advanced manufacturing and biotechnology.'

Today, problem solving and innovation are not the domains of one discipline or one people, one geographic area. For the best global, social and economic solutions, diversity of thought, opinions, education and experience are necessary. Higher educational institutions worldwide — as long as they are fueled by vibrant, diverse engineering talent from all corners — will continue to be fertile places for new ideas, entrepreneurship and the embodiment of engineering + X for the benefit of our ever-closer world.

Quantum physicist David Deutsch said, “There will always be problems. But all problems are solvable, through science and engineering.” It is this mindset that must characterize the new engineers.

Yannis C. Yortsos is Dean of USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

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