Mark Zuckerberg

World leaders of government and business are gathering in the Alpine town of Davos this week for 2016’s World Economic Forum (WEF). The theme for this year’s discussion is Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution and amongst the speakers is Royal Academy of Engineering Research Chair Jeremy O’Brien.

Engineers have been at the heart of each industrial revolution, advancing human progress through new forms of power generation, mass production and information processing. Arguably the most famous industrial revolution was between the 18th and 19th centuries, which brought us the steam engine, the elevator safety break and the spinning Jenny!

In his preview, WEF Chair Klaus Schwab has described the Fourth Industrial Revolution, also known as Industry 4.0, as the era of innovation built on ubiquitous and mobile internet, smaller, cheaper and more powerful sensors, as well as artificial intelligence and machine learning. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is distinct in the speed, scale and force with which it promises to transform entire systems of production, distribution, consumption – and possibly the very essence of human nature.

Juergen Maier, Chief Executive of Siemens plc said:

“Industry 4.0 could be the opportunity to help the UK economy effectively rebalance towards high-end, high-value, personalized manufacturing, attracting investment, transforming our growth potential and bringing manufacturing back to our cities.”

Clearly engineering lies at the heart of inventions that have started this revolution but is there more to come?  At the turn of the year, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg revealed that his personal challenge for 2016 is to build an Artificial Intelligence system to run his home and help him with his work – he sees this technology becoming ubiquitous. He likens this ‘simple’ project to J.A.R.V.I.S. – Tony Stark’s butler/personal computer system in the Iron Man movies (Just A Rather Very Intelligent System – in case you were wondering).

Mark Zuckerberg tells us that he spends much of his time at Facebook working with engineers to create new things and this particular project is no exception. Engineers created the internet and the World Wide Web (acknowledged with the inaugural QEPrize) and it is engineers who are often described as the bridge between science and commerce.

It turns out people around the world agree with the founder of Facebook. The QEPrize’s Create the Future report – a global study of the perceptions and understanding of engineering – shows 75% of people believe engineering can make leaps forward in advanced computer technology such as artificial intelligence.

QEPrize judge and President of Stanford University Professor John Hennessy, agrees. In Professor Hennessy’s contribution to the Create the Future report he argues that information technology is at the heart of almost everything we do. He explains that behind all physical technology, be it a renewable energy system or education programme, is a critical piece of software. Software engineering is one the largest and widest ranging engineering disciplines, and should Mark Zuckerberg make progress with his AI butler it will undoubtedly involve a piece of software developed by an engineer at an earlier stage.

However, before this dream becomes a reality, Mark Zuckerberg and his team of engineers are going to have to integrate the Internet of Things (IoT) into the AI platform, which is why a real-life J.A.R.V.I.S. does not yet exist!

AI systems that interact with multiple different electronic items will require IoT. The IoT is a network of physical objects or “things” embedded within electronics, software, sensors, and network connectivity, which enables these objects to collect and exchange data.

Engineers are  central to the development of IoT and the ongoing efforts it  to reach the level required to host a fully functioning AI system.

Recent progress on autonomous cars shows that we are getting closer to the goal. They are entirely reliant on existing AI technology, with automotive engineers ensuring that an incredibly complex technology is integrated into something most of us use every day. Autonomous drones are another example, with engineers developing increasingly independent machines that can operate with minimal human supervision. If engineers are able to combine AI with products such as cars and drones, then it won’t be long before technology it reaches our homes.

Humankind’s progress to date has been driven by an endless desire to make the world a better place and to improve people’s lives. For now, Mark Zuckerberg’s lofty ambition for AI is still just a dream but, with the enthusiasm and skills of engineers, it may come true sooner than you think.

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