door with a brass opening to insert mail into
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The Energy Conundrum

In the September/October 2022 issue, Ed Maurer, Ph.D., P.E., M.ASCE, responds to another reader in support of the recent federal infrastructure bill. By and large, it is hard for a civil engineer to speak against public infrastructure funding, as that is our bread and butter. Certainly, the industry as we know it is guided by evolving public policy, and our calling is to provide the best possible service toward the public health, safety, and welfare. But is some rushed, far-reaching federal policy the best solution?

Maurer asks that we accept the current popular thought about energy, complete with its trillion-dollar price tag, arguing that the forerunners to the green revolution — rail, petroleum, and cars — were also heavily subsidized industries. Somehow, he makes the leap that this time will be different, that somehow, the current popular thought is vastly superior to yesterday’s popular thought, and that the many environmental issues we see resulting from these early technologies won’t find their way into green energy.

Green energy is already showing cracks. Bloomberg reports that windmill components cannot be recycled and must be landfilled by the hundreds of acres. Battery technology is well behind the curve and requires very dirty processes. Additionally, the nation’s energy grid is unprepared to handle the loads of a totally electric society. California’s Advanced Clean Cars II rule, approved in August, requires all-electric vehicles by 2035, yet days later, the state asked residents not to charge existing EVs due to shaky supplies. At this time, the clean, green energy dream is slipping into nightmare.

Rail, gas, and cars were (and are) heavily subsidized and, like most subsidies, the technology followed the money. Long-lasting, high-quality solutions are achieved instead by money following technology. This will occur when the well-intentioned subsidies are eliminated and the market develops attractive solutions the public finds valuable.

Imagine a past where our society wasn’t based on moving people and goods around, when products were manufactured and grown locally, people consumed less, and we weren’t tied to our cars. Subsidizing transportation brought us urban sprawl, pollution, and untold waste. History demonstrates that these issues won’t be remedied through an overarching national policy ­— quite the opposite.

Alan Palmer, P.E., M.ASCE, Muscatine, Iowa

The Trouble with AI

As a practicing registered civil engineer in California for 30 years, I am dismayed with the message sent in the review of the book Working with AI: Real Stories of Human-Machine Collaboration, which appeared in the article “Book Examines Positive Side of Human-Machine Collaboration” on Civil Engineering Online in September. The article states the book examined the “positive side” of human-machine collaboration. The article (and thus the book) seems to suggest we need only be concerned about the next 80 years of technological advances. The article is attempting to quell concerns that machines are currently taking over human jobs. The article also suggests that there will continue to be the need for human oversight of machines and that these oversight positions are skilled positions, meaning positions that require training that not just anyone can acquire.

But even these positions could be overtaken by AI advancement within the next 80 years — the point at which full automation arrives. The article admits that partial automation involves the replacement of three workers for each machine. So, what happens 80 years from now? Each machine takes over 10 jobs? Twenty jobs?

The article describes the book as saying “all bets are off” at that point. In a sense, my own profession is saying, “Oh well.” Why are we only concerned with our children and grandchildren? Shouldn’t we be concerned with the next five, 10, or even 20 generations? If the book is a message that human-machine collaboration is good for the betterment of society, should it not have compassion for an uneducated workforce that we will always have and offer a way to at least slow down the human-machine evolutionary process to keep our uneducated workforce engaged in money-making jobs?

Already we see the ramifications of job loss due to technology. It will only get worse as the number of jobs in first-world countries declines or the labor force from within refuses to accept the available jobs that require no education. Is this what we must accept as we approach “singularity” (which the authors describe as the point at which AI can do everything better than humans)? I fear my own industry is turning a blind eye to this eventuality and apparently looking to others to direct us in a more sustainable direction.

For the next 80 years, this will continue to be a source of the labor divide, which will get wider until we come to singularity, when no one can get a job without higher education. As a civil engineer, I’m embarrassed that those in any technical capacity can think it’s OK to continue in this direction and not see past three generations. If we see this coming, we have a responsibility to offer solutions.

Charlie Marr, P.E., M.ASCE, Whittier, California

This article first appeared in the January/February 2023 issue of Civil Engineering.

Letters to the editor are welcome. The opinions and positions stated are those of the authors and not by the fact of publication necessarily those of the American Society of Civil Engineers or Civil Engineering.