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Can futuristic movies help 'future-proof' how engineers think?

Updated: Apr 5

Elon Musk made a bold claim recently that robots are “semi-sentient” yet reassured us that we can, at least, still “out-run” them https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=HUP6Z5voiS8.

The creation of autonomous vehicles that are fit-for-purpose relies heavily on Cognitive Science. Perhaps this field can also teach us how to stay ahead of artificially intelligent systems in reminding us how uniquely adaptive we are. The future doesn’t need to be apocalyptic, but some movies highlight well what are still our 3 human 'killer app's':

Why even Human clones rule O.K. -

“The Island” stars Scarlett Johansson & Ewan McGregor as clones on the run. While their ‘originals’ & owners believe the two are just ‘spare parts’ kept in a vegetative state, the truth emerges when the ‘products’ escape the factory. Sean Bean, as the ‘mad scientist’, despairs at the poor post-market surveillance and desperately attempts a ‘ product recall’. He realises that what has made the clones unpredictable is their curiosity; still a uniquely human capability. When we're in doubt about our place in the world, we're often at our most scientific as this is what inspires us to inquire. What we most need to examine is -1. our evolving purpose & expectations, 2. if the goals we have set are still valid & 3. if our ‘truth’ - how we see ourselves & our abilities - is congruent with reality.

We persuade, therefore we think -

Traditionally, action movies are ‘script-light' but an economy of words in the 'Matrix' only emphasises its powerful motifs e.g. that even designers of systems do not fully understand their capability. While ‘Neo’, (Keanu Reeves) isn’t the chattiest, he is great at inquiry and displays a fine ‘Beginners Mind’. In asking key questions, he even helps the 'subject matter expert' Morpheus to reconsider his long-held assumptions.

Having a thinking partner is is becoming more important in our world too where the half-life of knowledge - how quickly facts that are widely accepted become obsolete - is now 3-5 years for some engineers. It is in engaging in effective dialogue that Neo reveals why rhetoric was once a standard subject in engineering colleges. Having to defend our points to others is what makes us challenge if what we think is still relevant and good dialogue help challenge opinions & achieve new insights. Systems often behave counterintuitively, the power of dialectics can reveal paradoxical truths e.g. that what got us this far in our careers may not be the same strengths that will propel us in future.

“Know Thyself” - or face loops of constantly saving thyself

The movie ‘Elysium’ represents a dystopian world far removed from our usual concept of heaven. Matt Damon plays a reformed criminal who endures professional life as a manufacturing op. in a highly segregated workplace. It seems that in our future world, there will also be plenty of work but not necessarily 'jobs' as we know them. Tasks are becoming atomised and skills more granular. As ‘Max’, Damon, bids not to save his precarious (and dangerous) job but his own skin, however, his quest transforms him to realise a higher purpose.

Work can elevate us too to greater self-actualisation. The key ingredient - and something that is a uniquely human intelligence - is our ability to self-reflect. Just as the (original) Oracle at Delphi recommended - we need to be on a quest to “Know Thyself”. Self-reflection increases our cognitive control over our own creativity, even in the face of volatile change. Under pressure, ‘Max’ acquires some great technology and a cool exo-skeleton. However, his real heroism lies in his brave realisation that he will gladly put the welfare of others ahead of his own.

How engineers advance careers

Little wonder then that to gain certification, engineers are encouraged to ask better questions, improve their communication skills and invest time in self-development. A daily ritual of writing down thoughts (including self-doubts & insights) doesn’t just control the ego, it also reveals opportunities for self-renewal & reinvention. In auditing our thinking and decision processes regularly (called ‘metacognition’), we avoid jumping to conclusions simply to be seen to have the ‘right’ answer or to gloss over our mistakes yet fail to learn.

Final Credits

Even Holloywood stars face the possiblity of being replaced by avatars, In Work 4.0, our heroic quest is to ensure that we aren’t out-moded, out-smarted or simply just overly-distracted to either notice or care where we're going and how we're going to get there.

Both Think4Purpose programmes on Critical Thinking & Quality Mindset features modules on Self-Management via Metacognition - check out the IBEC Engineering Skillnet website or email fiona@think4purpose.ie for details or to enquire about coaching.


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