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Engineers need more empathy says tech leader

Bhupinder singh close up

Civil engineers need to develop empathy as a core skill if they are to survive in a world where technology and machines can do everything that a traditional civil engineer would do.

That was the clear view of Bhupinder Singh, chief product officer at Bentley Systems. He was speaking to New Civil Engineer after the software provider revealed plans to further drive the use of analytics, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to support decisions in engineering design, construction and operations.

Bentley used its annual Year in Infrastructure conference in London to launch its iTwin Service, a cloud-based service that will unite a real-time physical model of an infrastructure asset through design, delivery and operation with all engineering data – with the intention that this rich data set can exploit emerging AI and mixed reality technologies to develop better designs, construction methodologies and maintenance strategies.

The advance again throws into question the future role of the engineer; something Singh was keen to explain.

“The industry is always going to need engineering professionals,” he asserted. “The magic will be maintaining relevance around smarter and smarter tools,” he said.

Engineers will either use the time created to engage in higher-level system-wide thinking or focus on engaging clients and end-users.

Singh said there were analogies with the medical profession, where doctors, and particularly GPs, are being marginalised by advances in technology and AI in particular.

“If you or I suspected we had a disease or illness today the first thing we would do is go online and find out all we can,” he said. Google searches or equivalent will use AI to hone the search and provide increasingly targeted results.

“We then have to go and see a GP who may well know less.

“So the skill set for the GP is not any more how much they can memorise but how much they can emphasise,” he said.

“It is a different skill. But the tools are evolving and society will place a higher value on empathy.”

Singh cited the growing trend in the US for colleges to offer programmes that link neuroscience, computer science, maths and music; linking “left brain” and “right brain” fields.

“US colleges are trying to come up with programmes that are deliberately left brain and right brain so that their graduates are more equipped to do the things we are talking about,” he said.

In the UK Goldsmiths University of London runs a Music, Mind and Brain (MMB) MSc which is highly interdisciplinary and draws on expertise from leading figures in music cognition, cognitive neuroscience, computational modelling, music education and music therapy.

Singh hopes others follow suit.

“If we really want to be ready for the future we need to be doing this stuff.”

Singh also cautioned that there will also always be a need for engineering judgement, and worried that the skill could be lost.

“The pessimist in me worries that we get lazy; we become too confident in the machine and lose that skill of judgement; of intuition: the ‘that’s just the wrong size’ skill,” he said.

Bentley announced that it plans to accelerate its iTwin digital twin offer through a strategic partnership with global data management giant Atos.

Speaking at the conference, Atos chief technology officer Markus Schaffhauser said the marriage of Bentley’s software with his firm’s knowledge of how to use data would allow it deliver innovative services for infrastructure asset owners.

“Digital twins are about AI and enhancing opportunities to deliver better solutions. This is where we can bring our knowledge to the table,” he said.

Said Bentley Systems’ chief executive Greg Bentley: “Our collaboration with Atos can help owner-operators really jump-start their ‘going digital’ ambitions, enabling and taking advantage of both immersive visualisation and analytical capability. Atos’ vast expertise in digital data integration, along with their global reach, make them the ideal partner for digital twin cloud services.”

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