Conversations about engineering over dinner and a haircut

For decorative purposes: colour contour map of a face mask produced using fringe projectionRecently, over dinner, someone I had just met asked me what type of engineering I do. I always find this a difficult question to answer because I am sure that they are just being polite and do not want to hear any technical details but I find it hard to give an interesting answer without diving into details. Earlier the same day I had given a lecture on thermodynamics to about 300 undergraduate students so I told my inquisitor about this experience and explained that thermodynamics was the science of energy and its transformation into different forms. Then, I muttered something about being interested in making and using measurements to ensure that computational models of aircraft and nuclear power stations are reliable and the conversation quickly moved on. A week or so earlier, I was having my hair cut when the barber asked me a similar question about what I did and I told him that I was a professor of engineering which led to a conversation about robots. We speculated about whether we would ever lose our jobs to robots and decided that we were both fairly secure against that threat. There is a high degree of creativity in both of our roles – while I always ask for the same haircut, my hair is in a different state every time I visit the barbers’ and I leave looking slightly different every time. I don’t think that I would like the uniformity that a row of robots in the barbers’ shop might produce. And, then there is the conversation during the haircut. A robot would need to pass the Turing test, i.e., to exhibit intelligent behaviour indistinguishable from a human, which no computer has yet achieved or is likely to do so in our lifetime, at least not a cost that would allow them to replace barbers. The same holds for professors – the shift to delivering lectures online during the pandemic might have made some professors worry that their jobs were at risk as recorded lectures replaced live performances; however, student feedback tells us that students have a strong preference for on-campus teaching and the high turnout for my thermodynamics lectures supports that conclusion.

Footnotes:

For a new website I was asked to describe my research interests in about 25 words and used the following: ‘the acquisition of information-rich measurement data and its use to develop digital representations of complex systems in the aerospace, biological and energy sectors’.  Fine for a website but not dinner conversation! 

There have been some attempts to build a robot that cut your hair, for example see this video

Image shows a colour contour map describing the shape of a facemask produced using fringe projection which could be used as part of the vision system for a robotic barber.  For more information on fringe projection see: Ortiz, M. H., & Patterson, E. A. (2005). Location and shape measurement using a portable fringe projection system. Experimental mechanics, 45(3), 197-204 or watch this video from the INDUCE project that was active from 1998 to 2001.

5 thoughts on “Conversations about engineering over dinner and a haircut

  1. Beverly E. Johnson

    Regarding the engineering or structural or design safety of nuclear power plants, the book Midnight in Chernobyl is an eye opener. Despite the fact that students enjoy f-2-f teaching more than virtual, your MOOC on Thermodynamics was a real gem. I loved that course. I think about it every time I boil water!

    Reply
  2. Pingback: Energy transformations | Realize Engineering

  3. Pingback: Aorta: structure to rupture | Realize Engineering

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