This year’s Australian Engineering Conference looks to the future

Hanson Robotics’ Sophia the Humanoid Robot, will appear at the 2018 Australian Engineering Conference. She speakers here at the Web Summit 2017, Lisbon. Photo by Stephen McCarthy.

Futurists, philosophers, and the inventor of the office scanner take the lead at this year’s gathering of Australian engineers.

This year’s Australian Engineering Conference responds to our growing preoccupation with new technologies and artificial intelligence. The conference theme is ‘The New Frontier: AI, Robotics and the Future of Engineering’, evoking images of warp drive, transponders, and the cult science fiction television show Star Trek, set in a technologically advanced, space-faring society. While this philosophical, futurist outlook should introduce some new ideas, it doesn’t mean there won’t be trade-focused discussions, and site-visits on key Sydney engineering works.

Perhaps we can attribute new interest in space exploration to Elon Musk’s Spacex project.

Breaking out of the usual conference model of speakers and panels in one location, the conference has organised site-visits to twelve projects that are exceptional in their field of engineering. The list includes urban regeneration in Barangaroo, Sydney, renovating heritage sites at the Sydney Opera House, extending Sydney’s light rail or visiting the Canberra military-class assault ship. Sessions are expected to offer a rare look behind the scenes through tours and speakers by the projects’ Head Engineers, Directors and CEOs.
Of the keynote speakers, most will address the impact of advanced technologies on the industry. What will happen to infrastructure design and our structural engineers once artificial intelligence (AI) graduates to a higher level of analysis and capability than human intelligence? This question is posed by one of the keynote speakers, Arup’s Tim Chapman, as a way to understand how an industry leader is preparing to work with advanced technologies. Importantly, the session highlights that AI is not an alternative to human labour, but an enhancement on our capabilities.

Ray Kurzweil. Photo by JD Lasica.

A high point is sure to be the keynote speech by Ray Kurzweil - futurist, inventor, author and Director of Engineering at Google (USA) who will appear via video link. Kurzweil was the principal inventor of everyday software, including the office flat-bed scanner and the first ever voice-to-text recognition. Kurzweil will address the question whether robots or humans will be in charge of the future. Kurzweil believes artificial intelligence will supersede human intelligence by 2045 and so surely will have an interesting answer.

‘The Singularity’ is the point where artificial intelligence will overtake human intelligence. Not everyone agrees with Kurzweil that it is an exciting point. Image by Gerd Leonhard.

The afternoon sessions present the most hypothetical and experimental of engineering discussions, particularly the panel is hosted by Geoffrey Robertson QC, who also hosts the television series “Hypothetical”, and features the diverse viewpoints of Sophia, the Humanoid Robot, Dr Catherine Ball - scientist, innovator and diversity champion, digital philosopher Jonar Nader and The Rev. Simon Hansford, Moderator of the NSW & ACT Synod, Uniting Church Australia.
This year’s Australian Engineering Conference is a bold step into the future but while, after attending, we might believe we are not far off advanced technology and space exploration, we aren’t quite at a Star Trek future where everyone is equal and money no longer exists. Conference tickets absolutely cost money and the line-up doesn’t achieve gender parity, with only seven out of the twenty-seven speakers being female (Sophia the Humanoid Robot included).
The Australian Engineering Conference runs from 17-19th of September, 2018. Register here.

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