The Great Artificial Intelligence Scam (Again)

{A longer version of this post appeared in the Australian Financial Review on August 18th under the title “When robots learn to lie, then we worry about AI“.}

Great claims are being made for artificial intelligence these days: AI.

Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s assistant, Apple’s Siri: these are all claimed as examples of AI.  Yet speech recognition is hardly new: we have seen steady improvements in software like Dragon for 20 years.

We have seen claims that AI with new breakthroughs like ‘deep learning’ could displace 2 million or more Australian workers from their jobs by 2030.

I was fortunate to discuss artificial intelligence with a philosopher, Julius Kovesi, in the 1970s as I led the team that eventually developed sheep shearing robots.  With great insight, he argued that robots, in essence, were built on similar principles to common toilet cisterns and were nothing more than simple automatons.  “Show me a robot that deliberately tells you a lie to manipulate your behaviour, and then I will accept you have artificial intelligence!” he exclaimed.

That’s the last thing we wanted in a sheep shearing robot, of course.

To understand the future prospects for artificial intelligence, learn to see it as just another way of programming digital computers.  That’s all it is, for the time being.

We have been living with computers for many decades.  Gradually, we are all becoming more dependent on computers and they are getting easier to use.  Smart phones are a good example.  They change the way we live and work and can also disrupt sleep and social lives if we let them, but so can many other things too.

Therefore, claims that we are now at “a convergence” where AI is going to fundamentally change everything are hard to accept.

We have seen periodic surges in AI hyperbole. In the 1960s, machine translation of natural language was “just two or three years away”.  And we still have a long way to go with that one.  In the late 1970s and early 1980s, many believed forecasts that 95% of factory jobs would be eliminated by the mid-1990s.  And we still have a long way to go with that one too.  The “dot gone” boom of 2001 saw another surge in claims.  Disappointment has followed as claims faded in the light of reality.  And it will happen again.

Self-driving cars will soon be a reality, thanks to painstaking advances in sensor technology, computer hardware and software engineering.  You can call it AI if you like, but it does not change anything fundamental.

The real casualty in all this hysteria is our appreciation of human intelligences… plural. For artificial intelligence has only replicated performances like masterful game playing and mathematical theorem proving, or even legal and medical deduction.  These are performances we associate with intelligent people.  Consider performances easily mastered by people labelled as the least intelligent, like figuring out what is and is not safe to sit on, or telling jokes.  Cognitive scientists are still struggling to comprehend how we could begin to replicate these.

Even animal intelligence defies us, as we discovered when MIT scientists perfected an artificial dog’s nose sensitive enough to detect TNT vapour from buried landmines.  When tested in the field, this device detected TNT everywhere, yet dogs could locate the mines in a matter of minutes.

It might be worth asking whether the current surge of interest in AI being promoted by companies like Google and Facebook is a deliberate attempt to seduce investors or simply another instance of self-deception group-think.

Why Australia’s Broadband Network is so Expensive

And will continue to be expensive.

The Australian National Broadband Network will cost us 40 billion dollars or more.  Here is one of the reasons why it will continue costing us even more tens of billions, way into the future.

I came across a technician installing a household connection to our fabled National Broadband Network today.  Here’s a photo of his work site.


The technician has to tape up his sleeves and trousers and wear gloves and a face mask because a few of these Telstra cable pits contained asbestos, but no accurate records exist to tell which ones are affected.

Notice how he has first had to excavate sand from around all the cabling under the concrete slab set into the foot path outside the home.  There is supposed to be concrete shell to keep most of the sand from the fibre and cables, but obviously the inspection procedure was weak and many pits have no protective shells.  Even where the shells were installed, sand pours in through holes with rain water.

Some of the existing cables had been laid at ground level, just beneath the slab, so he nearly cut them as he was digging the sand away to expose the Foxtel fibre laid in a rush 20 years ago.  The coaxial cable connections to the small fibre connection box have partly corroded.  “They won’t last much longer, but that’s all we have to work with,” the technician told me.  “This one’s in pretty good condition: you should see some of the ones we have to work on.”

With a bit of forethought, we could have installed a plastic underground tunnel along every street, maybe 50 mm in diameter, with tough and sand-proof junction boxes for the interconnections.  Then the fibre and cable fittings would have been protected from sand, moisture and corrosion and perhaps have lasted for a century or more.  Much easier and quicker for technicians to work with.

More rigorous inspection would have picked up lazy contractors who did not bother to bury cables at the correct depth to protect them from damage.

More costly to begin with, but then as a nation, we don’t think far ahead, do we?

Unfortunately, we don’t educate our engineers about the importance of inspection and monitoring of contractors who have an interest in minimizing their work, especially when it is conveniently buried underground.

So, if you are thinking about complaining about Australia’s high telecommunication costs, you can attribute this to a combination of short term thinking, obvious gaps in engineering education, and our liking for low density urban sprawl.  We have far fewer customers per square kilometre, longer fibres and cables, and so many more phone towers per 10,000 people.

At least there will be plenty of technician jobs for decades to come.

Address to North America – Tunisia Engineers Group July 28, Monastir, Tunisia

In this address, I talked about the differences in engineering practice between Paris and Tunis and how young Tunisian engineers can learn to be experts by understanding how they can contribute economic, commercial and social value from their work.

Here is an audio recording (apologies for the noise and low quality)

And the powerpoint presentation


Bill Williams and I have now written a book chapter and a journal article about these ideas, but it will still be several months before they appear.  If you would like advance copies of these manuscripts, please write to us.

Tunis has some wonderfully picturesque locations, particularly at Sidi Bou Said, where the traditional architecture and streetscape was preserved by orders of the French Protectorate.

I visited the ancient Carthage port and ruins of the citadel…

Leftover “spare parts” fascinated me: these exquisite marble columns represented the technological state of the art at the time of the Roman occupation.

At Al Jem, there is a vast, wonderfully restored Roman amphitheatre which serves as a reminder of Tunisia’s past engineering achievements, albeit under Roman tutelage.

With our guide Lotfi Hassine and companion Dr. Vasundara V Varadan, who delivered an inspiring keynote address on Saturday.

Some other photos:

Note the notches used with lifting clamps to ensure no stones would be dropped while being lifted into place.

Here are some of the enthusiastic young engineers I met and had the privilege to work with at Monastir.

Dr Ammar Kouki, Chair of NATEG 2017, and Dr. Ahmed Khebir, volunteer their time and energy every year to organize NATEG for up to 600 young Tunisian student engineers.

Finally we were entertained by the Central chapter of the Tunisia America Chamber of Commerce in Sousse – a memorable evening.

Missing the obvious

Sometimes a research result is so obvious that you miss it.  That’s why researchers collaborate: there is less chance of overlooking the obvious.

Bill Williams and I have written about engineering value creation: how most engineers create value even though they don’t necessarily invent anything new or do designs.

And we both managed to miss something obvious.  Engineers create value when they educate others.  In my book, The Making of an Expert Engineer, chapter 8, I wrote about the ways that engineers teach others (and also learn from others, often at the same time).  This teaching and learning activity is more extensive than many engineering students might expect.

Engineers are often said to build things, make cars, planes, phones and so on.  But they don’t.  Other people do, however, with the help and guidance of engineers.  So engineers spend the largest single chunk of their time on technical coordination (chapter 9), informally influencing and leading others.  Across all the engineers we have observed, they spend 25-30% of their time on that: gaining the willing and conscientious collaboration of others who contribute time, effort, knowledge and skills within an agreed time frame.

Why so much time?

In essence, engineers accumulate technical knowledge and understanding and use that to align the actions of all the other people who contribute their performances sufficiently closely with technical intentions that the investors who provide the money will walk away sufficiently satisfied, enough of the time, so they come back and do it all again for something new.  Repeat business in other words.

And that means that engineers spend much of their time explaining why things have to happen a certain way.  And explain this in different English or other dialects so that all the other actors, ranging from investors to contractors to suppliers to government regulators and local communities learn enough to collaborate effectively.

And that’s not all the teaching.

Much of the teaching performed by engineers cannot be attributed to a specific coordination effort.  One of the most obvious examples is teaching younger engineers, helping them learn in the workplace, passing on knowledge and technical insights.  Studies (e.g. Bailey & Barley 2010) have shown that younger engineers need up to an hour a day of one-on-one guidance and teaching in the workplace, and much of that is performed by more experienced engineers.

Now, one of the most interesting findings from our research with Australian firms comes from asking about charge codes for teaching younger engineers.  A simple question “When you are helping to develop the skills of younger engineers in your organization, is there a charge code that you enter for that in your time sheet?”  Almost (but not quite) invariably the answer is “No, I have to do it in my own time, in effect.  It’s just a responsibility that goes with the job, I guess.”

Australian engineering firms, maybe other firms as well, we don’t yet have enough data to be sure, overlook the value of training their own engineers as something that creates value.

Well, we are guilty too.

We overlooked the value created when engineers develop the skills, knowledge and attitudes of others.

We have therefore amended our recent posts and will also have to amend our publications which, fortunately, are still “in press”.

Engineering Value Creation

In my last post, I wrote a brief explanation about value and value creation, noting that “value” has many different meanings.

In this post I will summarize what Bill Williams and I think is a new theory of engineering value creation, the subject of my address to the International Conference on Engineering Education Research (iCEER 2016) in Sydney on November 24.

Most engineers create both societal and economic value from their work, but without much awareness on how they achieve that.

Interviewing engineers with my students, we noticed how many engineers find it hard to explain how their work creates value, especially engineers who are not designing new products.  At first we were surprised to find that this was no easier for engineers with commerce or MBA degrees.  Later, we realized that this reflects the lack of theoretical understanding about the links between engineering and economics.

Why is this important?  Why does the lack of theory really matter?  Surely it’s obvious.

Well, no, it is not obvious.  And without a theory to explain engineering value creation it hard to teach students why engineering is valuable. Continue reading

Value and Value Creation

The word ‘value’ is challenging for engineers because it has several related meanings.

First the mathematical meaning. ‘Value’ denotes a number associated with a variable, for example x=2.72. It can also denote a numeric value in a spreadsheet cell resulting from calculations.

Next, we speak of “human values”, usually positive or desirable attributes such as honesty, humility and loyalty.

We can also appreciate “value systems” such as a money-oriented system of values, or a religious or humanist system of values that influence human behaviour. Many organisations espouse their own values, though aligning individual actions can often be problematic.

For this discussion, ‘value’ is a measure of the extent beneficial or useful, often associated with a monetary value. Thus, we talk about the “face value” of a currency note or the “value of a house”.

“Value creation” implies activity that results in something valuable, beneficial or useful. Human values and value systems only arise from long and complex socialisation within a community, and a mathematical values exist through definitions.

Most discussions on value in business centre on the notion of “exchange-value”. This is usually an amount of money exchanged in return for a service, or artefact, or the entitlement to a service or to acquire an artefact at some future time.

The notion of value extends beyond a simple monetary exchange, however.

If we think about the motivation behind a decision to spend money, or to work to gain something, we encounter the pleasurable anticipation of acquiring something valuable. It might be the future entitlement to a service or possession of an object. It could also be gaining peace of mind, a feeling of security, through entitlement to protection from something unpleasant. For example, people pay taxes to their government in return for security: protection against the possibility of destructive behaviour by other people, disease, or loss of their property. Philosophers refer to this notion as “use-value”, the emotional pleasure experience associated with the acquisition.

Value creation, therefore, denotes activity that results in services or artefacts that can be enjoyed by people.

Since this emotional pleasure lies at the root of value creation, “use-value” is subjective: everyone will experience the service or artefact differently, and enjoyment will depend on circumstances. The unpleasant anticipation of feeling thirsty when walking outside on a hot day motivates people to exchange money for bottled water they can carry with them. The apparent “use-value” is heightened if, for example, there are no other water sources or known providers nearby, even though the quality and quantity of water in a bottle is precisely known.

There is another consequence from understanding the emotional basis of value: value creation depends as much on the user as the creator. In other words, value is co-created. For example, the use-value of the bottled water is probably greater if the water slakes one’s thirst on a hot day, than if the water is used to wet some sand in order to create a sand sculpture, or poured onto a shrivelled weed.

The extent to which a person can anticipate a specific pleasure or pain, or understand another person’s second-hand description, also influences use-value.

Finally, a person’s perception of use-value can motivate a decision to buy or sell in exchange for an amount of money, revealing an exchange-value. Since every person sees it differently, with an unconsciously different potential exchange-value, their response in any given situation is unpredictable.

Understanding notions of value creation takes us into the realm of subjective experiences and all the different ways that people anticipate these experiences. Then we can begin to appreciate the various ways that value can be created by engineers for their clients and humanity.

Yes, it’s difficult at first. Many engineers yearn for fixed objective truths, and shy away from fuzzy subjective emotions. However, our research shows that engineers who understand value creation enjoy more respect and far more rewarding careers, both intrinsic enjoyment and financial benefits.

The next post will start revealing how engineers create value through their work.

Post Script

If you are fluent in a language other than English, I would appreciate your comments on how these ideas are represented in other languages or cultures.

Trump needs engineers who understand value

Americans have voted, and most of us were surprised.

I just watched a CNN interview with a former factory worker who voted for Trump. “We need lots of small factories with 200-300 people making things, employing Americans.”

Trump can’t deliver that.

Only engineers can make that happen, engineers who know how to create sufficient value to attract investors.

Bill Williams and I have recently discovered that many engineers know little if anything about creating value for investors.  Supported by students, we interviewed practicing engineers and found that, for example, most associate the word “value” with a number in a spreadsheet.

We also discovered little in the business and engineering research literature that can help.

A small number of “expert engineers” have worked it out for themselves, without necessarily being able to explain it in simple terms.  They are well rewarded by their clients and employers because they create so much value for their enterprises.

We have recently written a detailed explanation which, we think, explains how these experts create value, and we hope this makes sense for many more engineers who could just make enough difference, everywhere.  Not only to help frustrated Americans.  Engineers who know how to create value effectively could transform our world and eliminate poverty.

Since the industrial revolution, we have all come a long way, but most of us know we cannot sustain our civilization into the future without making some big changes.  We engineers have to lead these changes, but we need huge resources from everyone else to make it happen.  And that requires insights into value creation that elude the vast majority of engineers right now.

In coming posts I will do my best to explain the fundamental ideas that have emerged from our research and what we mean by value creation.

Why failing drinking water supplies are a catastrophe for us all

When I started writing about drinking water supply in low income countries (like India and Pakistan) I saw it primarily as an economic issue.  It was only when I read recent papers on stunting that I realized the catastrophic health and economic impacts of stunting caused by faecal contamination of drinking water supplies, now common in many parts of the world.

Stunting occurs when infants drink contaminated water causing repeated diarrhoea attacks which result in permanent damage to the intestines, restricting nutrient intake so affected children suffer from malnutrition even if they eat enough. Nearly half of all children in South Asia and other parts of the world are now affected.  So many piped water schemes provide contaminated water at the point of consumption.  The water pumped into the system may be safe to drink, but what goes into the mouth is not.

The only way to start fixing this problem is safe drinking water distribution. Obtaining and treating bulk supplies of safe drinking water is relatively inexpensive: even desalination costs only $0.50 per ton. While there are many water-scarce regions, in most there is still plenty to drink once treated.  The scarcity affects agriculture more than drinking.

Piped water supply utilities are failing in most low-income countries and few if any provide a 24/7 supply of safe water. For example, “good” utilities in South Asia provide intermittent water for 1-2 hours every 2nd day: sewerage seeps in through leaks during the “off” time contaminating the network. Many leaks result from crude attempts by engineers to enforce revenue collection by temporarily disconnecting adjacent water and sewerage pipes to recalcitrant customers. Air trapped in pipes destroys meters. A downward spiral in service quality and revenue collection forces people to stand in line to bribe tanker drivers to refill contaminated domestic tanks. Water has to be filtered and sterilized to make it safe, or supplied in 20 liter bottles at $100-150/ton.

Low trust between consumers, utilities and government undermines attempts to improve service quality. Conventional water supply technologies require trust and collaboration between diverse social actors which is much more difficult than in high income countries so the problem persists.

And for the majority of people who have no piped water, the situation is even worse. When women carry and purify water their labour is unpaid but comes at a cost: more than $30/ton across South Asia using standard value of time models.

The consequences of drinking water safety failures affect everyone: the real cost of getting just enough can exceed 10% of family income. It helps to explain stubbornly persistent poverty, stunting and malnutrition from environmental enteropathy caused by fecal contamination. The economic and health catastrophe in low-income countries affects us all.

In the next post, I will describe why so many previous attempts to solve this problem have failed and how I came to see some elegant solutions.

An update on Close Comfort

About 10 months ago I was sitting in the lounge room of our family home in Islamabad, Pakistan with my wonderful wife Samina Yasmeen.  She is a professor of Political Science at the University of Western Australia and directs the Centre for Muslim States and Societies there.  We had just inspected a huge pile of boxes containing hundreds of Close Comfort air conditioners in Lahore which we were planning to sell in Pakistan in the summer.

“Well Professor, what do we do now?”

Never having even sat by the road side to sell lemonade, as two professors, we wondered just where to begin.

Close Comfort emerged from my addiction to Pakistan mangoes developed in the 1990s and aversion to summer load shedding introduced by President Musharraf in response to Pakistan’s inability to pay for electricity.  It was a love-hate relationship because the best mangoes come in the hottest months of May and June when the indoor temperature without air conditioning is around 40C day and night.  The electricity supply to each part of each town and city is disconnected in a mostly predictable rotating sequence.  It was new to Pakistan in the early 2000s, and now common in many countries.

I decided not to give up my love for mangoes.  Instead I decided to try and develop a battery powered personal air conditioner to deal with my hate for load shedding.  I lay in bed during the power blackouts, sweat running down my skin, listening to the inevitable mosquitos ready to pounce.  The air conditioner had to be just powerful enough to keep the two of us comfortable at night, with mosquito protection, and it had to run on a domestic UPS (uninterruptible battery backup power supply).

A good ten years passed before we had the boxes in Lahore.  It was only after I tried a wooden prototype in Islamabad in June 2013 with amazing success that we decided to finance some prototypes and we had now reached our first commercial launch.

It has been a whirlwind 10 months.  Our prayers were answered and the right people stepped into our lives and the right moments.  Samina’s charm attracted so many.  Amazingly we sold hundreds of ACs with our special tents that intensify the cooling, essential in the height of summer in Pakistan.

Now several hundred people in Pakistan have slept soundly in summer, free from interrupted sleep, without worrying about power bills and mosquitoes maybe for the first time.  We would like to take this technology to more people in future.   It could be one way to avoid huge increases in electricity demand that could lead to unacceptable CO2 emissions.

Running a technology start-up is not for the faint-hearted.  As a late-comer to entrepreneurship, I am now almost accustomed to the ups and downs and dramatic changes from one day to the next, but not quite.

We are a long way from profitability, but at least after 9 years of company operations we have some positive cash flows.

I will bring more stories from this adventure from time to time.  For now, read the post “Lost in Urdu Translation” to give you some insight into the difficulties we have had to overcome.  Browse our Pakistan Facebook pages for some of the reactions to the product.  Try our interactive experience to educate prospective customers about a radically new approach to air conditioning.

And, at the Close Comfort web site you can also browse the new challenge that presented itself: developing an application has pre-occupied me for the last 8 weeks or so.

A big change and a new project

It has been a while since I posted last, and the gap is due to a big and change in my life.  After 41 years of teaching at the University of Western Australia, I decided to draw my formal teaching career to a close.

The reorganisation currently under way at UWA presented me with an opportunity to make the change earlier than I originally planned, under much more favourable terms.

The main reason for the change is to spend more time on our growing investment in Close Comfort ( and to pursue another intriguing challenge.  Last December, my wife Samina and I gazed at the huge pile of 800 air conditioners stacked in our family home in Lahore and asked each other “Well, Professor, what do we do now?”

We prayed and the right people came into our life, and we sold hundreds of air conditioners with a marketing campaign that we devised as we went along.  For more, see our Pakistan Facebook page.

I will shortly describe the new challenge that life has presented….