I am a runner, and an early riser by nature, so getting out to run a trail at sunrise is just about the happiest I can be. The sunrise was gorgeous this morning, and I found myself meditating on the creativity of science, engineering, mathematics…we think of poetry and art as the creative arts in our society these days, but when one thinks of the history of these “hard” disciplines they are no less creative. Cuvier had to invent natural history from studying the earth and her bleached-out fossils, Mendeleev invented a methodology to organize the elements of our planet helping us predict the existence of things which had not yet been found, Euclid formulated universal truths about the relationships of physical bodies and then we as humans expanded that through observation to an entirely different field of orbital dynamics and ultimately sent people into space…these are creative arts as much as mathematical truths. We teach these disciplines as truths and forget their inventive history, which I believe discourages the very mindset that breeds engineers to be their most effective selves. For me, I only really began to learn and love my profession in the practice of it. Through working I have seen and been a part of solving some of the most exciting problems in the world of hardware, and I am confident science and technology will continue to solve some of the most difficult problems of our world (global warming, cancer, etc.) through creativity and ingenuity if we can continue to engage and unlock our future technologists.
I guess I started thinking about this because I have heard so many dystopic conversations of late where folks are worried that ChatGPT and similar AI models will displace humans doing complicated knowledge work. Why learn to code? Why figure out circuit diagrams? All of this will be automated! Me being me, it is likely no surprise that I believe these models will unlock even greater creativity and autonomy for humans through automation of the increasingly complex tasks our mounting levels of abstraction are requiring. Code still does and will always matter, being able to understand the physics of how a pump works will always matter (to a doctor trying to understand the human heart and a systems engineer trying to understand the optimal approach for liquid cooling, whether or not surgery or servicing of those servers are conducted by human hands or robots). I fundamentally believe this is the most interesting time to be alive for a technologist (and arguably a musician, artist, teacher, student, etc.) The technology that is being built today has the capacity to unleash human potential in a way formerly unimaginable, and we are the lucky ones who will see what universal truths and opportunities it will create.
I’ve also been thinking about the power of human potential and how work is or is not serving it because I recently finished Drive: The Surprising Truth of What Motivates Us. While I’ve read a lot of pieces in this vein before (Designing Your Life incorporates a lot of the aspects of flow and how you can optimize for that in your career, and several parenting books I’ve read have hammered on the disincentive of “pay to play” scenarios since they decrease the natural curiosity and propensity to learn that children are born with in favor of “unlocking the reward” behavior), I found revisiting these concepts given the current economic conditions, readjustment happening for workers in technology, and rise of more powerful AI models in our world particularly interesting. Some of the key takeaways from the book is that an incentive leads to short term results: e.g. “eat your vegetables and you will get dessert”, but less positive outcomes in the future: e.g. they don’t learn that vegetables help them feel healthier and grow stronger vs. eating dessert, which tastes good, but may ultimately make them feel sick if they eat too much, or even feel out of control negatively impacting relationships. One of the analogies used in the book is if you pay your kid to take out the trash, they will never do it again unless they are paid. It is good to have an allowance to help kids learn how to manage budgets and save. It is good to have kids do chores to help their family out of a sense of belonging and contribution to the communal needs of the family. If you correlate their chores to their allowance, then they learn to only do chores for money in perpetuity, which likely won’t help them much when they have to build their own homes and families.
This thought then make me think about my journey into engineering (the natural wonder of building my first server and playing with robots and gadgets as a kid, and how poorly my formal education fostered that same wonder), and then how my experience in work actually made me fall in love with technology and learning all over again through mentors and advocates who enjoyed what we were building. Honestly the worst parts of work have been the rote activities (writing verification tests with walking 1s to make sure there were no sticky bits–THESE TESTS SHOULD BE AUTOMATED! And then I moved to a company who built tooling to do exactly that!), and it is the complex problems, and puzzle pieces “clicking into place” where you know you are on to something and you make it WORK that make work fun. If we believe that AI will help automate the rote tasks in knowledge working (not the creativity of thinking through the problem and formulating the algorithm, but maybe the scripting to ensure that you are accessing all the right databases for the right information) and continue to expand the capacity of humans to find those big picture “aha” moments, quite possibly the future will be brighter for the individuals working to solve these problems than ever before.