AMA 107 – Dr. David E. Goldberg talks about changing engineering education with Jason Hartman


Dr. David E. Goldberg is a professor, writer, and a civil engineer. David has written several books on the topics of engineering and algorithms. Some of these books include The Design of Innovation, Genetic Algorithms in Search, Optimization, and Machine Learning, and, his latest book, A Whole New Engineer. Jason sits down with David to pick his brains on the latest in AI technology, why there’s a decline in engineers, and we also get to find out a little bit more about David’s most recent book.


Key Takeaways:
2:10 – David jumps right in and talks about AI, Artificial Intelligence, technology.
5:20 – To design a kidney by human hands is impractical, but nature has been able to create one for the past 3.5 billion years and more.
9:15 – As better or new technologies arise, so will the ethical questions.
12:45 – What’s happening in engineering education right now?
15:40 – Engineers were seen as heroes and that view reached its apex around World War one and two.
17:55 – Roughly speaking, 6.9 billion of us owe our existence to technology since our agriculture days.
20:30 – It’s not just in the US where engineers feel unwanted; it’s happening in Asia too.
24:10 – Closing thoughts? Students who feel trusted end up doing the most innovative things.


It seems to me that these innovations get baked in to systems in ways that we’re not even aware.

If you go back into the time machine into the 1800s, there’s this period where engineers were rockstars.

It’s remarkable how little we teach about capitalism history.


Mentioned In This Episode:
The visible hand by Alfred Chandler



Jason Hartman:
It’s my pleasure to welcome Dr. David E. Goldberg to the show. He is emeritus professor of engineering at the university of Illinois and he’s the author of several books starting way back in, I believe, 1989. Just a couple of titles here for you, one we’re going to talk about is A Whole New Engineer; The Coming Revolution in Engineering Education, The Entrepreneurial Engineer and The Design of Innovation: Lessons from and for Competent Genetic Algorithms. This is interesting stuff, folks. So, even if those titles don’t sound super interesting or maybe they sound nerdy, stick with us, because you’re going to like what Dave has to say. Dave, welcome, how are you?

Dr. David E. Goldberg:
I’m great, Jason. It’s really good to be with you.

Well, the pleasure is all mine. I had to say that for our non-engineer listeners of which I am one, I guess. So, you know, I don’t know what we should talk about first. We kinda got two broad topics I really want to cover in this interview and I really kind of want to talk about your renown research and expertise in the field of AI or Artificial Intelligence. So may people now are talking about the singularity. Maybe for those who don’t know you can start off by explaining what that is.

Yeah, so there’s this idea that technology is accelerating so rapidly that we’re going to come to a point where it overwhelms us and perhaps takes over from us and that’s the singularity and whether or not we believe in that it’s pretty clear that technology is accelerating and becoming ever more important in our lives. So, people who know my recent work on engineering education reform may not know this background that you alluded to in doing Artificial Intelligence. I’m a trained civil engineering that migrated in computer science and as part of my dissertation work to do some work on something called generic algorithms or evolutionary computation.

You can give a really simple cocktail party of it. It’s the idea of using Darwinian survival of the fittest on the one hand and ideas from genetics like the idea of having a chromosome and the idea of using mutations and cross-over recombinant DNA, if you will, and you take those two things, throw them into a computer, so instead of designing by hand a jet engine, you would create a chromosome that represents different jet engines and mom jet engine and dad engine would get together and have baby jet engine and overtime you would evolve generations of more efficient jet engines and this isn’t science fiction. This is something that has been used by General Electric to evolve jet engines or companies in Japan have evolve production schedules for steel plants and even people have used genetic algorithms to evolve music and art. So, it’s very cool stuff.

That is fascinating. Is this considered singularities? Is this bio-engineering? I mean, I’m quite fascinate by the idea of 3D printing of kidneys or whatever else we might need.

So, generic algorithms can be separated from biological applications, so you’re using the idea of genes to create an artificial genetics that helps you to evolve the solution to whatever problem. So, of course, you can turn on biological problems and use genetic algorithms to evolve solutions to the design of all kinds of thing. If you think about things like nanotechnology, for example. Nanotechnology and biotechnology for that matter you’ve got perhaps 1,000 or 10,000 or millions of decisions to make in designing an artificial kidney; to use the example you’re talking about; to do that by hand is impractical, but nature has been doing this for 3.5-4 billion years in this way, so we use nature’s algorithms of choice for evolving and solving hard problems and voila you end up with pretty good solutions and not in billions of years. We’re doing this on computers, we’re doing it real fast, we can do it efficiently. So, some of the work I did was instrumental in helping us understand how quickly we can evolve to solutions to how complex to a problem.

How much of this can we do now? I mean, we’re growing ears and body parts in labs, right? When do you call it cloning? When do you call it engineering? I don’t know. There’s this blurry line I don’t exactly understand what to call things anymore. I guess that we means we’re approaching the singularity right?

Well, I’m not sure about that, but I think you can, you know, so when you’re a scientist or an engineer and you’re involved in these kinds of projects..when you’re the outside looking in things look a bit magical and a bit mysterious when you’re on the inside using these algorithms, you know they work for good reasons and these designs come out and you test them and if they function according to plan, they’re doing something good. So, when you’re in the middle of it, you can sign causality or you know why things are working for the most part so it’s not some of the hype around not knowing as is may be a bit overblown.

Really, this is just incredibly fascinating stuff. Can you speak at all, this is probably not your area, but I thought I’d ask, you know, what this stuff means to us, what it means to the economy, what it means to the society as a whole, and then I want to ask you about the education side, which is fascinating too.

I think you started off right in saying it’s not my area. When we look back on prognostication in eras that were much more slower moving than ours. That kind of prediction was almost always wrong in profound kinds of ways. That’s one of the things that’s so interesting about human creativity. Now with these kinds of tools and these kinds of leverage that we have, it’s perhaps even more difficult to predict what these things mean to us, but it seems to me that these innovations get baked in to systems in ways that we’re not even aware.

To a certain extent, some of these advances and machine learning and artificial intelligence are already being baked into IT systems that we use on a daily basis and more of that is coming and as you say there are these nano/bio kinds of technological designs that are intractable without using tools like this. So, things like this are either here or on the way and they, I think, they will continue to provide opportunity and there’s also a negative and there’s a potential for doing harm. So there are ethical questions to the degree in which we use these technologies and we know what they’re producing and the side effects that we’re producing and the extent to which those are predictable or not. So, there are very real questions about sustainability and growth and the ethics of using these kinds of technologies and there are no simple answer.

There are no answers like putting your hand up against history and saying stop. That doesn’t work very well and, on the other hand, fully laissez-faire and unregulated of trails of say various kinds of genetics outputs could be very dangerous of us. So, in many ways that could be why we need to boarded the education of scientists of engineers in the century.

Yeah, absolutely. Well, one of the areas where I think this has just fascinating, wide-ranging impact is in the field that is…It just seems like it’s booming right now and that’s the area of longevity sciences. We might be on the verge of just cracking the immortality code. I don’t mean immortality in the pure sense, that might be, you know, maybe…it might never happen, but certainly some major, major advances in the field longevity are seemingly pretty close. I study this stuff and I find it fascinating. Think about what it means to the economy. Think about what that means to the social security system. The retirement age. The sustainability. You know, I always like to give environmentalists a hard time when they’re giving everybody else what they should do, but the fact is everybody alive and that they are alive, they’re consuming resources and, you know, Malthusian idea that people are just not a resource they’re a cost only, but people solve a lot of these problems. They do create. So, we’ll see where that balance goes, but just in the area of longevity alone, wow.

I couldn’t. So, I agree. There is a sense sometimes if you listen to people who are speaking strictly from an environmental sustainability perspective that everything is a cost and everything is a resource. It tends to ignore the innervation capability of human beings. I think I agree with you that it’s a huge mistake and it’s one of the ways in which predictions are wrong. Predictions can either overshoot and undershoot and there is often times a tendency to over predict harm. I mean, when was the last time you saw an optimistic science fiction movie where the future looked more interesting and bright than the future that we have and yet, in many ways, if you look back into the 40’s or 50’s and project forward, those were the lives we’re living right now and there are brighter and things are more optimistic than people projected back then.

Yeah, they certainly are. Very interesting. Well, what’s going on in the field of engineering education with the exception of many stars in engineering mostly in Silicon Valley, I guess. You hear about the people that got into a start up and made it big and so forth. It doesn’t seem like engineers are very well paid on the whole and I think that’s kind of unfair because everything we look around, everything we use all day is the result of some brilliant engineer. There’s this funny commercial, I wish I could remember what it was for. You’re probably know what I’m going to refer to where it had these rockstars and all the women were tearing their shirts off and then it had the Indian engineer guy that invented USB and it flipped the world around. They should be tearing his shirts off. This is something we use everyday, right? You know, it’s just kind of funny our culture doesn’t seem to allocate the recognition and maybe the pay correctly. Your thoughts?

Well, there is an ebb flow in history to how engineers are viewed. If you go back into the time machine into the 1800s, there’s this period where engineers were rockstars and, I mean, we talk about electric engineers and computer scientists now, but think about the late 1800’s, Maxwell equations have just come out so people are predicting and some of the first results on magnetics and electromagnetics or radio just come out and so there were all kinds of companies started and engineers were really stars and not just electrical engineer, civil engineer has built bridges and buildings and ships were built of enormous unprecedented size.

So, there were this sense of emergence large technology and large scale business, which engineers were at the center of. There’s this terrific history of large scale business in the United States. The visible hand by Alfred Chandler and he talks about, well, who invented modern business enterprise and it was the civil engineers who started the rail roads, because they were the first people to work across vast distances and they needed a difference kind of organizational structure, so they made up modern business enterprise. There was a sense of excitement back then, which then got squelched in World War one and two and there’s phrase that philosopher Steven Goldman, he says, engineers became socially captive in World War one and two. I think that’s a good description.

So, these very large vertical integrated return to scale kinds of companies were built and engineers were working bees in those companies and that continued and was really sort of reached its apex just post World War two and the Cold War. So, what you’re alluding to in Silicon Valley is a phenomenon between the end of World War two and what has happened now. I called them the three missed revolutions. We had the quality revolution where statistical quality control when Japan came back and the Japanese beat us around the ears with it, the entrepreneurial revolution of various garages in Silicon Valley, and the IT revolution from the microchip to the personal computer to the internet.

So, here we are in the opening moments of the 21st century and we live in this really different place that where once after World War two, we wanted obedient engineers to shut up and sit down and do what they were told and now we want the next Steve Jobs who wasn’t an engineer, but we want our engineers be that guy or that gal whose starts the next great tech company and many of our young people, the students, going into engineering have those aspiration, because they see these role models out there.

So, why is engineering education so important to our economy?

Well, so again, there are roughly 2 million or so in the US who call themselves engineers. There are about 4 million or so that are in mathematical and computer science. I mean, it’s a pretty big part of the work force, but if you stand back from it and say, look, we’re on this planet. We’ve got 7 billion people on this planet and more coming. If you just do a fundamental analysis of the situation and say, alright, well, what would happen if we did like some people would have us do and turn off the technology. Where would be? It’s hard to know exactly, but if you dial back to the days when there was only crude technology like agriculture, if you go back before crude agriculture.

Say, dial back 7,000-8,000 years or so, what do you got? You’ve got about 100 million people on the planet. So, roughly speaking to 6.9 billion of us owe our existence to the technology that’s been developed since agriculture. So, turning off technology isn’t an option. Keeping it going and having it function well and better and serve us better as human beings is even more important than ever. So, in that very fundamental sense, having the next generation of engineers be chosen from amongst our best and brightest is really important.

It certainly is. So, I’ve always thought that engineering was a very, very important career choice. I appreciate engineers like crazy and you look at it compared to the, you know, how they’re getting sucked away into the game of Wall Street in that, what was that movie called, Margin or..I can’t remember the name of the movie, but it was a couple of years ago and the founder of this huge brokerage firm depicted in the movie as probably Lehman Brothers, they were probably predicting; I’m not sure; comes in at midnight asking this young kid, you know, who was a quant who just figured out this whole situation they had that no body else saw in the company managing the risk and the billion head of the company says, so, you know, what’s your background kid? And he says, I have a PhD in blah, blah, blah, he says, basically what that means is I’m a rocket scientists. He says, well, what you’re doing here? And he says, well, Wall Street pays a lot better than engineering. I think that’s a sad commentary. I really do.

If you talk to the kids today, the students today, the motivations aren’t entirely financial, but if you factor in the fact that engineering is itself fairly uninviting and there’s this possibly of a larger paycheck, it’s hard to fault people. It’s not just an American problem. One of the interesting things we found out in researching the book and I had the pleasure in working on engineering education change in Singapore. We often think of Asia, okay, if we don’t generate enough engineers in America, well, at least we can always turn to China and India and they’ll give us the millions of engineers that we need, but even in Singapore is a the canary in the Asian coal mind for engineers.

I was working at the National University of Singapore and one of the things the engineering dean told me was that it used to be that engineering was the number one choice of young people accepted at NUS. That’s what where you went and many of the people in government were engineers, many of the people in the top jobs were engineers. Engineering was respected, but they too have fallen on this kind of sense that almost anything, but an engineer. It seems as though when countries become sufficiently affluent, kids wanna do something other than become engineers. So, one of the things that…

The distinction though, the Wall Street example I gave is that, you know, the financial in engineers and the financial innovators on Wall Street are really just leaches on the economy in almost every case in my humble opinion, disagree with me if you like, but all they’re doing is find ways to move things around and relabel things and, you know, cut things up and make derivatives out of them. They don’t actually create anything anymore. Okay, granted, companies need capital to grow and thrive, and so forth. So, conception ally, I don’t have a disagreement with the idea of capital formation of the stock market, of course, but it has just become such a corrupt…as I always say, the modern version of organized crime. You know.

I would agree there are excess. I guess I’d disagree to the extent that all of that activity, you know, so efficiently and capital is important and I personally know hedge fund managers and people who work with business to help restructure them more efficient so…

Yeah, I get it. I have investment banker friends too and hedge fund friends too, but the real value creation is when you create something new out of thin air and it changes everybody’s life. That’s like actual value. Of course you need capital to do that many times, so I get it. There’s a middle ground.

I think if you go back..So, again, if you go back in our time machine to the invention of securities back with the Dutch example and I think the early trading companies. So, the whole capitalism is a fair early invention and remarkably..It’s actually remarkable how little we teach about capitalism and its history and many of the objections to capitalism are objections that were held back in the 1500 and 1600s when it was first emerging and we seem to be in the same argument over the course of centuries, but..

I am a complete capitalist. So, don’t worry about that.

Those things be it the idea of the invention of shares and selling shares and having markets and the efficiently that brought to capital and the way that allowed business to scale was the kind of innovation that you were talking about.

Okay, we don’t need to debate that one, but I get it. Okay, so I want you to give out your website and then ask you for some closing thoughts.

The website for our work on changing engineering education is and there’s a movement to transform engineering education to help bring about engineers that can face..we’ve been talking about the ways which our times have changed and how do we do we unleash the courageous engineers we need for this century is what the Big Beacon is all about and the book is called A Whole New Engineer.

I hope that has an impact on things and we see a lot more people getting into the field, because, as I mentioned, I think it’s just incredibly important. So, yeah, good stuff. So, any closing thoughts? Anything I didn’t ask you, you didn’t happen to say, you know, just to wrap it all up for our audience?

I think, in terms of the key, and one of the big surprises in what we found in working on education today was the sense that of empowerment that we give students and it really comes from three things. Trusted students; when students are trusted by faculty or other students, they end up finding the courage to take an initiative, which leads to real learning and that’s the emotional equation that lends to the kind of learning that we need in this century and that’s a message that doesn’t apply to engineers. It applies to all kinds of entrepreneurial thinking, it applies to kinds of opportunities that we face in this century. So, that equation from trust to courage to initiative seems to be the kind of unleashing reaction that we are missing in education generally and we need to get into it.

Good, good stuff. Well, Dave, thank you so much for joining us today and talking about some of these issues and I always say, it is an amazing time to be alive. I think the next 5, certainly the next 10 years, it’s going to blow our minds, quite literally. We’re going to have amazing stuff coming down the pike. It’s really exciting, it really is.

I couldn’t agree more. Thanks Jason for having me on the show.

Everybody, that’s David E. Goldberg, an emeritus professor of engineering at the university of Illinois and the author of the several books that we mentioned.

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