We live in a time of great convergence

Many fields of human endeavor remain fairly separate. Soon they will come crashing together in exciting new ways: physics, biology, and philosophy all combining to take humanity to new places. The implication of this convergence is a workplace of incredible diversity, a requirement to educate people in more than one discipline, and a challenge for us all to respect and collaborate closely with people who are very different than us.

For a long time we have enjoyed an era where disciplines are relatively separate from one other, or perhaps enjoy only a very loose connection between them. To this day it's still fairly easy to categorize activities: electronics, biology, philosophy, economics, mechanical engineering, chemistry, and so on.

To solve problems and create breakthroughs we often form teams that draw upon skills from multiple of these disciplines. A gasoline-powered car is a triumph of mechanical, chemical and electrical engineering mixed with industrial design, ergonomics, and several other disciplines.

I expect this multi-disciplinary approach to dramatically increase in complexity in the coming decade or two. Teams will need to meld expertise from many domains in order to solve new problems in new ways and to create exciting new products and services.

Robots up the complexity

Consider where human ingenuity is going to take us next. Modern robots are a combination of material science, mechanical, electrical, electronic, and software engineering. These are all traditional engineering disciplines that have co-existed and interacted for some time. But in the coming decade we will see robotic development also incorporate fields that have not traditionally been involved, for example ethics, ethnography, and ultimately biology.

We are on the verge of a revolution in robotics. Computing capability, following the exponential curve of Moore's Law, will soon enable robots to see, hear, and understand the world around them. Cameras are being turned into eyes; microphones into ears. Breakthroughs in machine vision, deep learning, natural language processing, and AI will allow robots to live safely amongst us and interact with us in new ways. This is the same set of technology that will allow cars to "drive themselves". After all, an autonomous vehicle is really just a special robot with four wheels and four seats inside it.

Ethics, Philosophy and Engineering come crashing together

As machines become autonomous they will have to make decisions about how they move and behave. Put another way, they will need to make decisions that were formerly the province of human beings. That means that we will need the help of philosophers and ethicists to ensure that the programming of these machines helps them make the right decisions and behave in the ways we would want them to behave. And I'm talking about more than Asimov's three rules here.

Sophie's Volvo's Choice

For example, if an autonomous vehicle is driving through a busy suburban neighborhood at 30mph and an oncoming car (perhaps driven by a crazy human) has a blow-out and loses control, suddenly it's decision time. The autonomous car may have to take evasive action and choose between:

  • mounting the curb, smashing through a picket fence and destroying property
  • swerving left into a tree and risking the life of its owners
  • driving straight, hitting the oncoming car head-on and killing both sets of passengers
  • swerving right and hitting a kid on a bike

It's times like this, when the choices get tough, that we need ethics infused into the decision-making capabilities of the machines we build.

A minor side prediction: I suspect we will judge machines to a higher standard than we do humans, and that this may lead to some level of social backlash against machines as they begin to inhabit formerly human roles. To err is human. But machines will be expected to be infallible. In the car crash example above, there really is no good option to choose. And when the best option is a bad option, even if the AI makes the right call, human beings are not going to be happy with the way the autonomous vehicle performed.

Team diversity will take on a new form

As we race towards the future, and the pace of innovation continues to accelerate, we will see domains of expertise blur and eventually merge. Designers and engineers will need to master multiple areas of expertise. Development teams will need to embrace a broad array of knowledge from people spanning many diverse disciplines. That's going to require that we all come to the table with respect for other people who have vastly different experience and expertise than us.

Sadly, that doesn't seem to be the current state of play inside many organizations. I have heard brilliant engineers disparage PhD social scientists for "just not getting it", and visa versa. I've met hardware engineers that think that what they do is "real engineering" and software engineering is somehow a lesser art. Conversely, I've talked to arrogant programmers who think that software is superior since it sits on top of hardware that is now nigh on irrelevant. Computing people often see mechanical engineering as lesser. And so it goes on. Goodness knows how teams will react once we throw ethicists and synthetic biologists into the mix.

Trust and curiosity will live at the core of successful teams

Often the issue at the core of this lack of respect and professional courtesy is a complete lack of understanding of another person's discipline. It's very easy to dismiss another's profession as lesser. It is a short cut to make us feel good about ourselves. The people that impresses most are those that take the time to try and understand enough about another discipline to appreciate how important it is, and how much they don't know about it themselves. Our default position needs to be trust and respect of other disciplines. Above all we need to maintain a strong curiosity to find out how somebody with a totally different aspect might be an incredible collaboration partner.

Diversity has always been vital to the health of teams and their ability to develop innovative solutions to problems. But talk of diversity now needs to evolve beyond the color of people's skin, their age, or their gender. They remain vital aspects of diversity too. But if we are to solve the challenges of the 21st century we will all need to embrace new worlds of thought. We must learn not to fear the insights of people that come from vastly different backgrounds and disciplines. Because those autonomous cars and robots are coming soon. And to make giant breakthroughs like this we are going to need all the help we can get.