Category Archives: Fridays with Fuhrmann

Fridays with Fuhrmann: The Language of Technology

Photo:  cultureexperts.net
Photo: cultureexperts.net

This week, as our Computing and Information Sciences Working Group is building up some steam investigating how computing is handled academically and structurally at other universities across the country, I have been thinking about how computing here fits into our role as a technological university. That leads naturally to the question of “what is a technological university, anyway?” but today I mostly want to address some issues of language and ask the even more fundamental question “what is technology?” I will conclude with a few thoughts about the language we use to describe computing.

“Technology” is one of those things where everybody has some vague idea of what it means, but pinning down a definition is tricky. In the time-honored tradition of sermons and speeches everywhere I’ll start with a collection of dictionary definitions:

(Merriam-Webster)

1.a. the practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area : ENGINEERING
b. a capability given by the practical application of knowledge, /e.g./ a car’s fuel-saving technology
2*. *a **manner of accomplishing a task especially using technical processes, methods, or knowledge, e.g. new technologies for information storage.
3. **the specialized aspects of a particular field of endeavor, e.g. education technology

(Oxford English Dictionary)

1. a. the branch of knowledge dealing with the mechanical arts and applied sciences; the study of this.
b. the application of such knowledge for practical purposes, esp. in industry, manufacturing, etc.; the sphere of activity concerned with this; the mechanical arts and applied sciences collectively.
c. the product of such application; technological knowledge or know-how; a technological process, method, or technique. Also: machinery, equipment, etc., developed from the practical application of scientific and technical knowledge; an example of this. Also in extended use.
2. A particular practical or industrial art; a branch of the mechanical arts or applied sciences; a technological discipline.

OED also list 3 obsolete definitions not included here.

(dictionary.com)

1. the branch of knowledge that deals with the creation and use of technical means and their interrelation with life, society, and the environment, drawing upon such subjects as industrial arts, engineering, applied science, and pure science.
2. the application of this knowledge for practical ends.
3. the terminology of an art, science, etc.; technical nomenclature.
4. a scientific or industrial process, invention, method, or the like.
5. the sum of the ways in which social groups provide themselves with the material objects of their civilization.

(The Free Dictionary)

1.a. the application of science, especially to industrial or commercial objectives.
**b.** The scientific method and material used to achieve a commercial or industrial objective.
*2. *electronic or digital products and systems considered as a group: a store specializing in office technology.
*3. * /(Anthropology/) the body of knowledge available to a society that is of use in fashioning implements, practicing manual arts and skills, and extracting or collecting materials.

There are others, but this is enough for now. There are several take-aways from this collection, and the first is that the definitions are all over the map. This creates an opening for me to take issue with some of the definitions and furthermore describe my own perspective. For starters, that first Merriam-Webster definition that equates technology with engineering is just flat-out wrong and they should know better. The OED definition that equates technology with the “mechanical arts” seems stuck in the First Industrial Revolution and ignores all the advances in the past 200 years due to human knowledge of electricity, chemistry, materials, biology (not to mention computing – more on that shortly). There are some circular definitions in there, such as any of the ones that use the word “technical” which I assume has a similar etymology. However, the area that I think is most interesting is how these definitions describe a relationship with “science.” Let’s look at that.

Contrary to what a lot of people might think, science is not a collection of complicated and hard-to-understand laws of the universe. Rather, it is a human endeavor, by which we as a species attempt to figure out how the world works. At its heart is the scientific method, by which we look at the world, try to form a rough guess about what is happening in it, then form hypotheses which we attempt to prove or disprove using experiments. When I say “the world” I mean a lot of different things; it could be the hard physical laws of physics, like light or gravity or electromagnetism, or it could mean the nature of matter, as in chemistry, or it could mean complex life systems from biology. “The world” can also include systems that human beings are a part of it, such as in economics, social sciences, or psychology. The point is that science is all about uncovering the truth, to the best of our ability. The truth might be simple, or it might be complex, but it is what it is.

When the definitions above refer to the application of science to industry and commercial applications, they do not really mean science, they mean the laws of nature and our understanding of them. What we do as human beings is use our understanding of the laws of nature in order to exploit them (in a good way, usually) to make tools – things that did not exist before in nature – and thereby improve the human condition. This leads us into the territory of engineering.

Like science, engineering is a human endeavor, by which we take advantage of our understanding of the physical and natural world, combine that with our intellectual capacity, and create useful things that did not exist before. Where science is concerned with the truth, engineering deals with what is possible. Engineers are essentially tool builders, and as such the engineering profession embodies much of what it means to be human. These tools could be simple, or they can be enormously complex, but either way they are the product of human creativity. For most of the 250 years since the beginning of the First Industrial Revolution, engineering has meant the creation of physical things whose operation relied the principles from physical laws of nature like Newtonian statics and dynamics, thermodynamics, electromagnetism, chemistry, and the like. In the last 50 years or so the concept of systems engineering and control systems has brought an additional layer of complexity that is highly mathematical and is more about organization than the laws of physics, but nevertheless I think most people associate engineering with the development of physical tools – cars, airplanes, telephones, power grids, bridges, chemical plants, and so forth.

When I say that engineers build tools that did not exist previously, it sounds like I am saying that engineering is the same as invention, which is not really true. The distinction has been blurred in the past few decades, where there is so much emphasis placed on innovation and entrepreneurship in engineering schools. Even our own Michigan Tech tagline “Create the Future” suggests we want our students to go out and invent things. While engineering practice can lead to inventions that are, in the words of the U.S. Patent Office “new, useful, and nonobvious”, it does not always have to be that way. A lot of what engineers do is take well-known principles and skills and apply them in new situations, for example in the design of a new airplane or a power plant. The work can be evolutionary, not revolutionary. Imagine a skilled homebuilder: he or she may design and build beautiful houses all over town, but does not apply for a patent for each new house just because it is different than the one before. A lot of engineering is like that too, just with a different set of objectives.

This brings us back to the original question of “what is technology?” Looking over the set of definitions, the ones most closely aligned with what I mean when I use the word are Merriam-Webster 2 (“A manner of accomplishing a task…”), OED 1c (“The product of such application…”) and dictionary.com 5. This last one is interesting: “the sum of the ways in which social groups provide themselves with the material objects of their civilization.” That’s really catchy. What all of these are saying is that technology does not mean the knowledge or the process by which we build tools, it refers to the tools themselves. As that last definition makes clear, what we mean by tools covers a lot of territory, but the key element is that they are the products of our own human imagination, applied to the materials we find around us. Science provides us with the process for understanding how the world works, engineering is the process by which we create tools and extend what is available to us in nature, and technology is the result. These thoughts are echoed nicely and expanded further in http://researchpedia.info/difference-between-science-engineering-and-technology/.

If one buys this line of reasoning, then it means that the purpose of a technological university, if it is true to its name, would be education and scholarship in the ways that we as a society provide ourselves with the material objects of our civilization. I’m good with that.

So where does computing fit into all this? I think we would all agree that, if we are talking about the tools of 21st-century civilization, then computers, computation, artificial intelligence, information systems, and all the related things you want to put into that bucket, are a big part of what we would call technology today. But what are the words that we use to talk about that? Engineering is the well-established term we use to describe the process for creating physical tools, but what about the analogous process on the computing side? I assert that there is no word or phrase in the English language that adequately captures the process of creating new cognitive tools. This may very well be the reason why we have such a hard time recognizing computing as a discipline, when we compare and contrast it to the field of engineering.

Some of the options available to us are:

1. Computer Science. I think this term is a misnomer and its very existence is holding the field back. While one can easily argue that there are some scientific aspects to CS, where one actually does experiments to test hypotheses about algorithms or computer systems, by and large Computer Science is not science. Of the four terms in the STEM acronym, Computer Science is more mathematics, more engineering, and more technology than it is science. Unfortunately we are stuck with it.

2. Computer Engineering. This is an accurate descriptive term but its use is limited. It generally means the application of the tools of electronics, integrated with low-level software, to the creation of computers and computer systems. It can also mean the use of cognitive tools to control engineered physical systems (going the opposite direction, one might say) but these days I prefer the terms automation/ or cyber-physical systems for that.

3. Software Engineering. This is a wonderfully accurate term but again it refers to a narrow slice within computing. It means of the process of creating computer code that meets modern industrial standards for large projects written by teams. Most CS majors would probably be better off as Software Engineering majors if they are looking to become professional programmers.

Before all my CS friends come to my door with torches and pitchforks, let me say that I have tremendous respect for everything that has been accomplished in the past 50 years under the name of Computer Science. Here we are in the Fourth Industrial Revolution where all our physical tools are connected, sensed, and controlled using cognitive tools, and that is the result of the extraordinary efforts of a lot of very smart people, many of whom are graduates of CS departments. I am only saying that the name is wrong. We need a word that describes all of the human effort and the human process that goes into building those cognitive tools, and Computer Science just doesn’t cut it for me.

My own wholly inadequate answer to this lexicon quandary is to use the word “Computing”, as I have already done in this column. I like it because it is simple, a one-word gerund that nicely parallels the word “Engineering.” It is its own word: it is not Science, it is not Technology, it is not Engineering, it is not Mathematics. The reason it is inadequate is that it sounds too much like what you do on a computer, and that is pretty narrow, but I don’t know what else to do. When I use the term Computing, I mean it to encompass the wide range of human activities that result in the creation of new cognitive tools. Here at Michigan Tech, we find that activity all over the place, in the CS Department, in the ECE Department, in the Math Department, the School of Business and Economics, in the School of Technology, pretty much every department in the College of Engineering, you name it. I am convinced that if we could find the right word to describe all that activity, our view of that field as a scholarly discipline would change entirely.

Next week is Thanksgiving. Among many other things I am thankful for those of you who read these random musings on a more-or-less weekly basis. FWF next week is doubtful, so unless inspiration strikes from a leftover turkey sandwich I’ll write again in two weeks. Have a wonderful holiday!

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University


Fridays with Fuhrmann: Winter’s Here

FWF-image-20171110A couple of weeks ago I reported with barely contained glee that winter was on its way. I was right. We got a few inches of additional snow this past week, and for the time being it is sticking around. Thursday night temperatures plunged into the single digits in the western part of the Upper Peninsula. The cross-country ski trails at Michigan Tech are open, and I plan to be out there on Saturday. It’s a good time to make sure I have all the right gear, or at least remember where I put it at the end of the season last year. It’s nice to have the ski season start a little early for a change.

Saturday is also Veterans Day, and so in what has become a bit of a tradition I would like to recognize those members of the ECE Department who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces:

Glen Archer
Mike Chase
Roger Kieckhafer
Chris Middlebrook
Mike Roggemann
Mark Sloat

I thank these gentlemen for their service to the Nation. I also want to acknowledge these individuals for their service to the ECE Department in their current civilian careers. I try not to do this too much, but on those occasions when I need to ask people to put the interests of Michigan Tech and the ECE Department above their own personal interests, they have always answered the call, and I am deeply grateful. They serve as an example for all of us.

We are in the middle of preregistration for the Spring 2018 semester, and because we are in the second year of an increase in the number of new ECE students, we are seeing particularly large enrollments in key sophomore courses like Digital Logic and Circuits II. Right now Associate Chair Glen Archer and I are working to make sure that we put the right instructors in these courses, and even though we still have a couple of question marks I am confident that these courses will be expertly taught. I have always been a big believer in putting our best instructors in these critical early courses, where pedagogy matters as much as the material.

I have to believe that the increase in enrollment is due in part to increased awareness of the demand for computing professionals, exemplified by the data I showed last week. Judy Donahue, our academic advisor for the BSEE program, tells me she has been processing an unusually large number of requests for transfers into the ECE Department. I’m not really surprised, but we will have to make sure we are prepared to offer our new students everything they are looking for. Coincidentally, just as I was preparing to write this, I got wind of a recent report from the National Academy of Science about the growth in Computer Science enrollment and what universities all across the country are doing in response. I am looking forward to reading that and sharing some of it here. The topic fits squarely within the interests of our Computing and Information Sciences Working Group, which has started its own study of how computing is approached, as a broad academic and research area, at 40 U.S. universities.

November 10 is the anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, in 1975. I’m not sure what that has to do with anything else in today’s column, but I suppose I can use it as an opportunity to remind everyone to be careful while traveling, especially a week from now when people take off for Thanksgiving. I don’t know anyone going out on Lake Superior, but the roads can be a little dicey this time of year with fresh snow. Take it easy and don’t get in a hurry!

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University



Fridays with Fuhrmann: Winter’s Coming

FWFimage_20171027I have mentioned before the old canard that there are two seasons in the Upper Peninsula: Winter’s Here and Winter’s Coming. While this obviously does not do justice to our beautiful summers, there is definitely a Winter’s Coming season, and it just arrived. After a rather late, warm, and wet fall, we had a storm blow through here on Tuesday with cold rain and 50-60 mph winds that was like a shot across the bow. Although the landscape is still dotted with a few bright yellow trees that weren’t quite ready to quit, for the most part our woods are bare. The forecast now includes rain/snow mix and other reminders of what’s to come. It’s the time when we put the driveway stakes in the ground, tune up the snowblowers, and make sure our snowplowing contracts are in place.

The change of seasons coincides as it often does with a change in the vibe in the ECE office. For some reason, it seems that the first half of the fall semester is just frenetic, with one deadline after another and lots of visitors who like to come to campus during that short window of time when the fall colors are at their peak. This year was made even a little more hectic with our ABET accreditation visit earlier this week. (I’m not supposed to tell you how that turned out, so I won’t.) Now all of a sudden it feels like we can take a little bit of breather. More importantly, we can turn our attention to some important longer-range issues that keep getting putting off on those days when all one thinks about is the agenda for tomorrow’s meeting.

The biggest long-range project on my plate this year is leading an effort to look at the role of computing at Michigan Tech. Before describing that further, I should give some context. This year we are looking at a major transition in the leadership at Michigan Tech, with ongoing searches for the president and the deans for four out of our five academic units: the College of Engineering, the College of Sciences and Arts, the School of Technology, and the School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science. This is not the result of any crisis, but just a bizarre coincidence where everyone hit retirement age at about the same time. The “last man standing” is Dean Johnson from the School of Business and Economics (whose first name really is Dean, leading to no end of jokes and explanations.) While it is difficult to predict exactly what will happen, I think it is safe to say that Michigan Tech will look a lot different at this time next year.

Back to the computing initiative. For many years, a number of people, both on-campus (including me) and some key external advisors have been looking at Michigan Tech’s position with regard to computing and information sciences, and wondering what we can do or should do to elevate our impact and our visibility in this key technology area. For several years now I have been a part of the Alliance for Computing, Information, and Automation (ACIA) which brings together the ECE Department, the Department of Computer Science, and the School of Technology, as we look for ways to cooperate in our academic programs and collaborate in research. The most successful outgrowth of that partnership has been the establishment of the Institute of Computer and Cybersystems, a research center led by CS department chair Min Song. However, there is more to be done, and with the upcoming transitions at Michigan Tech now is the time to do it.

In April of 2017 I made a presentation to the Michigan Tech Board of Trustees on behalf of the ACIA, where we made the case that computing is a key technology driver in the 21st century and that Michigan Tech should have a larger presence in order to stay true to its mission. With the encouragement of the Board of Trustees, this was followed up with a Computing and Information Sciences retreat on August 18, led by Provost Jackie Huntoon, where more than 60 member of the Michigan Tech community came together for a day and got a lot of issues out on the table. There was an excellent keynote address by Michigan Tech alumnus and benefactor Dave House, really driving home the point that the world has changed and that Michigan Tech needs to be paying attention. The retreat was a success, I believe, for raising awareness and getting people to think about what we might do. Of course, there were as many ideas about that as there were people in the room.

This brings us to present. Provost Huntoon has formed a Computing and Information Sciences (CIS) Working Group and asked me to lead it, and of course I jumped at the opportunity. The other members are: Min Song (CS), Jim Frendewey (SoT), Laura Brown (CS), Tim Havens (ECE/CS), Roger Kieckhafer (ECE), Myounghoon Jeon (CLS/CS), and Benjamin Ong (Math). Our charge is to use the time we have this year to develop recommendations designed to promote growth in size and quality of the degree programs and the University’s research portfolio in computing and information sciences, in the broadest sense. The recommendations are due to the Provost prior to the end of the 2017-2018 academic year. She will review those recommendations and use them to provide guidance to the future University president and the University’s Board of Trustees. Throughout the year we will periodically engage with a broad-based Advisory Group to share ideas and receive feedback. We have already gotten started, but now that some of the early-semester tasks are behind us I hope to really gather some momentum.

Most likely the topic of computing and information sciences at Michigan Tech will be the theme for this column, for much of the rest of this semester. The reader might wonder why I led off this story with a description of the change of seasons in the Upper Peninsula, which on the surface sounds a little ominous. You have to understand: I love the winters here at Michigan Tech. I am energized by the snow and all the winter sports that come with it. For me, this is not a time of hibernation, it’s a time of joy and rejuvenation, even during the shortest days and the darkest nights. I hope to bring some of that enthusiasm to the important task before us, and if we make any progress you will read about it right here.

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University


Fridays with Fuhrmann: A Visit with Martin Ford

FWF_image_20170922Last weekend Michigan Tech was privileged to host Silicon Valley entrepreneur and writer Martin Ford, author of the NY Times bestseller Rise of the Robots, which is all about the disruptive changes in the recent past and future in the areas of robotics, control, and automation, and the implications for our society and our economy. I was able to join Mr. Ford for a couple of different question-and-answer sessions with interested faculty, and to attend his presentation at the Rozsa Center which was open to the general public. I found the entire day to be stimulating and compelling, and I was very happy about the fact that Career Services and the Rozsa Center were able to work together and pull this off. The evening presentation was very well attended and included a lot of students. I was impressed that so many people were willing to give up their Saturday to hear a PowerPoint presentation about automation – but it really was that good.

Ford’s basic premise was twofold. First, although there have always been concerns raised about changes in employment and the economy due to technological advances, going all the way back to the Luddite movement in 1811, this time things are different due to the nature of the technological advances themselves, primarily in the area of artificial intelligence and deep learning. Second, there has been a marked shift in the relationship between worker productivity and worker compensation, that has led to increased inequality and that will probably continue into the foreseeable future.

The argument that “this time it’s different” centers around the sudden relevance of artificial intelligence and machine learning in engineered systems. Artificial intelligence has been around a long time, and for most of that time I have thought of it as the technology of the future – always has been, always will be. Now, in the past 5-10 years or so, it is becoming the technology of the present. This is due to a couple of factors. One is, the raw computing horsepower needed to carry out artificial intelligence calculations is starting to become a reality, due to the inexorable march of Moore’s Law (which says that, essentially, computing power per unit area on integrated circuits doubles every 1.5 to 2 years.) The second is the algorithms themselves, which have been steadily improving in academic research labs for many years, and which are now getting a turbo boost of innovation in industrial research labs like those of Google and Facebook, who recognize the importance to their bottom line. As evidence that we have turned a corner in artificial intelligence, Ford and many others love to point to the IBM Watson 2011 victory in an exhibition match of the TV game show “Jeopardy” over two human champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. More recently, a program called AlphaGo was developed by Google DeepMind in London to play the enormously complex game of Go, and in May of this year it defeated the No. 1 player in the world in a 3-game match in Wuzhen. What is particularly interesting about AlphaGo is that it is not based on a set of rules or heuristics, but rather it simply (perhaps not so simply) trained itself to play the game through a process of trial and error using the techniques of machine learning. This whole field of “deep learning”, based on artificial neural networks made bigger and better as a result of Moore’s Law, is taking Silicon Valley by storm and has really transformed the economic focus there from electronics to software.

[Aside: I have always maintained that the IBM Watson Jeopardy match was not a fair fight. To make it fair, the entire computing platform and its database would have to fit into a box no bigger than 1500 cubic centimeters, consume no more than 20W of power, and be silent when others are speaking. Watson was a very large computer consisting of multiple servers in a separate room with a very loud air conditioning system, and it had access to huge databases of information. Human players are not allowed to “phone a friend” during the match. The counterargument, I suppose, is that the human players had the advantage of 30+ years of training.]

The starting point for Ford’s argument on the economic disruption of automation is in the relationship between worker productivity and worker compensation. In what is considered by the many the “golden age” of American manufacturing, post-WWII, advances in tools and technology allowed workers to become more and more productive, according to a metric of goods and services produced per unit time. As a result, workers became more and more valuable and thus wages went up in lock-step with productivity. Sometime in the mid-1970s, however, this coupling was broken. Worker productivity continued to go up and up, but wages became flat. Ford often made the statement that, adjusted for inflation, American workers have not received a raise in 40 years. He attributes this to a shift from a situation where tools helped human workers be more productive, to a situation in which tools can simply replace the human workers. The situation continues to this day, and the outlook is for it to continue even more rapidly, leading to greater levels of income and wealth inequality and hence social disruption.

Asked whether he was an optimist or a pessimist, Ford responded that he was a pessimist in the short term, based on the realities on the ground, but that he is still an optimist in the long term when he thinks about human resilience and ingenuity. There are some serious problems we are going to have to come to grips with, but if we can work together to recognize and solve those problems, and maybe even get out in front of them, then there is still hope. He is realistic, but not all doom and gloom. I did find his approach different, and more down to earth, from that of other futurist authors I have read lately, some of whom are wildly optimistic about the future of the human race and its relationship to the machines we are creating.

I found myself nodding in agreement with most of the Ford’s points, and had my own takeaway messages. The first is, and I realize this may sound a bit selfish, this is a fantastic time to be an electrical or computer engineer or computer scientist, about to be entering those fields. The technologies of robotics, control, and automation are advancing rapidly, and the advances are not about to stop. We are the ones who are creating this technology, and thus we are the ones who are going to be in demand in the next few decades. Ford himself, knowing that he was at a technological university, made a couple of offhand remarks to the effect that “you guys are going to be OK for a while.” Those who are losing out socially and economically could say that we are part of the problem, and they may very well have a point, although I think as well-educated problem solvers there is every reason to think we can be part of the solution as well. But, setting that aside for a moment, from the individual point of view I would have to say that I cannot imagine a better career to be considering right now than something in the intersection of EE, CpE, and CS.

As evidence of that I would point to our very own Career Fair, which was held this week. Over 340 companies were on campus recruiting Michigan Tech students for co-ops, internships, and full-time. My friends over in Career Services tell me that everybody – everybody – is looking for more electrical engineers and computer engineers. We cannot fill the demand right now of all the companies looking to hire our students. This story is reflected also in national starting salary data. According to the Spring 2017 report of the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) which covers hiring of the Class of 2016, the top starting salaries by major in the nation, for groups with sample sizes of 500 or more, were:

Computer Science $78,199
Computer Engineering $74,439
Electrical Engineering $70,950

In the interest of full disclosure, Petroleum Engineering and Operations Research were higher, with sample sizes of 184 and 64 respectively. Petroleum Engineering used to be much higher, like over $100,000, but that has come way down and is now comparable to Computer Science.

These salary numbers are echoed locally. According to our Career Services 2016 Annual Report, Michigan Tech electrical and computer engineers (which were lumped together) had a 99% placement rate and an average starting salary of $65,951, which was highest among majors in the College of Engineering. ECE was second only to Computer Science, which did very well with an average starting salary of $78,333. The ECE figure is lower than the national average, but it is worth pointing out that many of our graduates take positions in the upper Midwest which has a lower cost of living than California. Our starting salaries are very close to what is reported in the NACE survey for the Great Lakes Region: EE $65,815 and CpE $67,610. Our Career Services numbers are self-reported and must be taken with a grain of salt; nevertheless there is no question in my mind that our graduates are doing very well. I never hear complaints otherwise.

A second point I want to make that was sparked by Martin Ford’s presentation, although tangential to his primary message, has to do with the ascendancy of the overall field of computing relative to engineering. He said it right out of the gate, that all the action in Silicon Valley right now is in artificial intelligence and deep learning. Silicon Valley got its name and its reputation from the design and manufacture of integrated circuits, but that is now taking a back seat to software engineering. The four U.S. corporations with the largest market cap right now are Apple ($791B), Google/Alphabet ($662B), Facebook ($490B) and Amazon ($459B). Apple still manufactures products, and Amazon manages a massive product distribution system, but even so the backbone and the core competency of these companies is essentially software. There are areas where software engineering intersects traditional engineering, to be sure, and the most visible example of that right now is in autonomous vehicles. The reason that Google can get into this game in the first place is that they do not have to design the power train. The value added by taking a traditional vehicle and making it autonomous comes from a suite of sensors, a trunk full of computing hardware, and all the cognitive data processing and artificial intelligence algorithms that end up controlling the accelerator, the brakes, and the steering. I predict that over the next 10-20 years we are going to see a lot more of these systems where the technological advances are primarily on the computational side, not on the physical side. I also believe that we need to be doing more to prepare our engineering students for a world that will be dominated by computing and software, and I will have much more to say about that in future columns.

Clearly my two take-away messages above were not really what Martin Ford came to talk to us about. In the end he advocated for a couple of things. One was more education in the social and economic impact of robotics and automation, which is certainly something I support and which would make all the sense in the world as part of our general education program. The second was starting a conversation around the idea of a guaranteed universal income. I think he is an proponent for this idea, but he recognizes the enormous political challenges and was content on this trip just to get people to start thinking about it. So, I am starting to think about it. I’m not ready to jump up and down arguing on either side, but am willing to learn more and have the conversation.

Fall is coming slowly to the Keweenaw this year. It’s been a wet summer and fall, so the colors should be pretty good as long as we can get a good cold snap to bring them out. Not seeing that in the forecast yet. Have a great weekend everyone!

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University


Fridays with Fuhrmann: Stay Tuned

FWF_image_20170922This weekend Michigan Tech welcomes a special guest to campus. Martin Ford, Silicon Valley entrepreneur and author of the bestseller Rise of the Robots, will be here tomorrow to spend a day with faculty and students, and to give a presentation that is free and open to the general public. That’s Saturday, September 23, at 7:30pm, in the Rozsa Center for the Performing Arts, for those that are nearby and interested. I plan to spend a fair amount of time with Mr. Ford, both socially and as part of his schedule of speaking events, and am looking forward to that. Since I see robotics, control, and automation as a important strategic growth area for the ECE Department, I thought this would be a golden opportunity to share some thoughts on the topic. It also makes sense to put those thoughts together after this weekend’s activities, not before. Until then, Happy Autumnal Equinox and have a great weekend!

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University


Fridays with Fuhrmann: Milestones and Beyond

FWFimage_201700908Today is the last day of our first week of the fall semester, and students are already getting their first break from classes. Later today is K-Day (short for Keweenaw Day), an outdoor event with food, music, and lots of practical information about activities at Michigan Tech, held at McLain State Park, on the shores of Lake Superior about 10 miles from campus.

The weather for K-Day promises to be absolutely beautiful, which is in contrast to the cool, rainy weather that we have seen recently. We joke a lot about our “reliable crummy weather” but in truth things here are pretty benign, and I even include our winter snowfall in that statement. We have nothing that compares with the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey in SE Texas, or Hurricane Irma which has wreaked havoc in the Caribbean and is bearing straight down on Florida. I’ll take the rain any day over the drought in the western U.S. which has led to practically apocalyptic wildfires that are barely making the news. My daughter, a college student in Bellingham, Washington, came home to visit this week, and as she got off the plane she remarked that this is the first time she has been able to breathe clean air in days. So, we count our blessings, and of course our hearts go out to all our fellow citizens whose lives are being negatively impacted by these weather events.

This weekend I hit a personal milestone – my 60th birthday is this Sunday, September 10. It is not really an accomplishment of any sort, other than just having lived this long, but I plan to celebrate nonetheless. I have never been shy about birthdays, and am not one of those people that tries to ignore the fact that I am a year older. Party on, that’s what I say!

I understand that a person’s 60th birthday is a major life event in Chinese culture; it has something to do with the 12 years of the Chinese zodiac and the belief that going through that cycle five times represents the completion of an even larger cycle (I defer to my Chinese friends and colleagues for a better explanation.) When my PhD advisor, Prof. Bede Liu of Princeton University, had his 60th birthday, a bunch of his former PhD students organized a big surprise party and people flew in from all over the country to celebrate with him. We even held a mock PhD oral qualifying exam for him, with former student Dave Munson (later Dean of Engineering at the University of Michigan, now president of Rochester Institute of Technology) presiding. That was 23 years ago, and Bede is still going strong. Coming up on this weekend brings back fond memories of Bede and how I still reach out to for him for advice on major life decisions – like a marriage proposal in 1994, and coming to Michigan Tech in 2008.

As is often the case with milestones in life, this is a good time to look forward with optimism and resolve. This academic year I am starting my 10th year at Michigan Tech, and my 4th 3-year term as department chair in the ECE Department. I feel reasonably confident that I still have something to offer, and am eager to do what I can to help move the department and the university in the right direction. This is not to say there is no room for improvement! Most of what I have learned about university administration I have learned on the job, and I am still learning. I have gotten a lot of very good advice over the years from colleagues and mentors, notably the namesake on my professorship Dave House. Dave is fond of saying “Experience is something you get right after you need it” and I have seen that play out many times.

I have also seen the importance of clear, concise communication in my position, and so I greatly appreciate the keynote presentation we had yesterday evening for all the first-year engineering students at Michigan Tech, given by Libby Titus, a Michigan Tech Environmental Engineering alumna and a technical communications expert at Novo Nordisk. Her topic was the importance of communications skills, particular writing skills, for professional engineers. I thought all of her points and her advice were spot-on. One point that she made is that the technical skills acquired in engineering school, as difficult and challenging as they seem to students at the time, are in retrospect easy compared to all the interpersonal skills that are required in the workplace. Communication skills are particularly important, and people who are effective in communication are the ones who will reach a large audience with their brilliant technical ideas. “Engineering and science are group activities” was a phrase she repeated a few times. I especially appreciated the point she made about the importance of using correct grammar in all forms of written communication. Readers of my “Rants from the Grammar Maven” column from earlier this summer can imagine me nodding in violent agreement during that part of the talk.

As much as I agree with what was said at the talk yesterday, I will counter with one point. We have a lifetime to acquire interpersonal, management, and leadership skills as we mature, but the best time to learn math, science, and engineering is when we are young. So to all our engineering students in attendance yesterday, I would say that our speaker was 100% correct in everything she said, but don’t let that stop you from getting your geek on while you are here at Michigan Tech. This is the place to become the technical expert you want to be, or at least to get started in that direction. Yes, you need to be a good communicator, but you have to have something to say, and the best way to do that is become a great engineer first. This is the old “build your house on rock, not on sand” argument that I have used before. Our educational programs in engineering are set up to help you succeed as technical experts, and all the feedback we get from alumni and industry partners tells us that our approach based on strong fundamentals works. In other words, enjoy K-Day, but be ready to hit the books next Monday!

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University


Fridays with Fuhrmann: August Odds and Ends

FWFimage_201700901Greetings to everyone from the chair’s office in the ECE Department! Here we are again, at the cusp of a new academic year at Michigan Tech. The new students have already been on campus for a week, for orientation, and classes start next Tuesday. As much as I love the beautiful quiet summers here, I get energized by the new and returning students, the new faculty members across campus, and the overall “buzz” of activity that accompanies the new year. Game on!

One little indicator of the increased level of activity is the increase in my e-mail. I have a nerdy little system where I track my e-mail pretty carefully, in an effort not to lose or overlook stuff, and part of that includes jotting down the number of e-mails in my inbox over every 24-hour period. Over the summer, right up until last Friday, that number was just under 100 e-mails per day. Starting this past Monday, that number jumped up to an average of 143 per day – a 43% increase! Not all of those required immediate action on my part, thank goodness. Our provost, Jackie Huntoon, tells me that she processes around 400 e-mails a day, and I don’t know how she does it. If one can handle 100 messages an hour, which is about my pace, that means spending half the day just conducting business by e-mail. I do notice that on those days where I am sitting in my office sending out e-mails to everyone, I end up with a lot more in my inbox. Funny how that works. Elon Musk, the entrepreneur behind Tesla and SpaceX, joked in an interview recently that e-mail was one of his “core competencies” although based on my experience I’m not entirely sure he was kidding.

Interested readers of FWF, if there are any, may notice that I kind of disappeared in the month of August. I don’t have much in the way of explanation, other than 1) I got busy, or 2) I got lazy. It actually was a busier August than usual. At any rate, I am back in the saddle and ready to share with you more random thoughts on a weekly basis as the semester progresses.

Today I will play “catch-up” with a few paragraphs about what has been on my mind the past month. Any of these topics could have turned into an entire column but I will try to keep it brief.

Alumni Reunions. Michigan Tech held its annual reunion celebration on campus in the first week of August. As always it was great to re-connect with so many Huskies from our past. For the second year in a row the pasty picnic was moved indoors to the MUB due to the threat of rain. Last year it was just that – a threat – but this year it rained cats and dogs so moving it was a good call. [My all-time favorite kid joke: “Hey, it’s raining cats and dogs!” “I know, I just stepped in a poodle.”] At the Friday night awards dinner, we gave the “Honorary Alumni” award to our good friend John Dau from DTE. This award is given to someone who is not an alumnus of Michigan Tech but who has been so engaged with the university that we can pretend he or she is anyway. That was a wonderful evening and I can’t think of a more fitting recipient than John. The entire week is a good opportunity to remind the alumni, and ourselves, that they carry the Michigan Tech “brand” with them their entire lives, and anything we do to move the university forward is a positive reflection on them, even when they have been away from campus for many years.

Copperman Triathlon. I bring this up just as an example of how wonderful it is to be in the Copper Country in the summer (see paragraph 1). The Copperman Triathlon is a very well-run local athletic event up in Copper Harbor, and I have enjoyed participating in it several times. It was held on August 5 this year. The distances are a little bit non-standard, but it is close to Olympic distance – 1/2-mile swim, 23-mile bike, 5-mile run. It can be done individually or in teams – I have done both – and this year I was on a team with Jesse Depue, daughter of retired Michigan Tech colleagues Chris and Carl Anderson, and Joan Becker, our very own Graduate Program Coordinator in the ECE Department. Our team name was “Trust Me, I’m an Engineer”. Jesse absolutely crushed it with a 13-minute swim, and Joan was flying on the bike at 1:12:30. I turned in a mediocre 47 minutes on the run, but hey, I was off the couch and enjoying a stunningly beautiful day in the Keweenaw. I’ll take it.

Charlottesville. From the sublime to the despicable. The events in Charlottesville really set me back and may have had something to do with why I just stopped writing for a couple of weeks, because I had such a hard time finding the words. It goes without saying, but I will say it anyway, that hatred, racism, white supremacy, Nazism, the KKK, and everything that goes with them and everything that they stand for are absolutely deplorable. What is more disconcerting to me is that there is even any debate about this. Seriously, how hard is it to condemn Nazis? There was no end of commentary to be found on social media, and two videos I really liked came from Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jim Jefferies. Schwarzenegger grew up in Austria, and in his video he commented on the soul-crushing effects of Nazism on those who served, and lost, in the German army in WWII. Jefferies, an Australian comedian and fairly recent addition to the Comedy Central line-up on cable TV, made a serious point about how we cannot pretend these neo-Nazis are not part of us (I will skip over his anatomical analogy, even though it was pretty good. Google it.) To his point, we as electrical engineers, computer engineers, and computer scientists have to come to grips with the fact that something we have created – the Internet – has a lot to do with the resurgence of hatred in our society. I have seen some of this stuff, and it is appalling to read what these cowardly little Internet trolls are saying about their fellow human beings under the cover of anonymity. I spend a lot of time here extolling the virtues of all the good things that electrical engineers have brought to this world. The Internet is one of those things, but it has a dark side that is way worse than anyone probably imagined 30 years ago. That hatred is now coming out into the open in ways that we are going to have to deal with, one way or another. I don’t have any good answers – I am just really worried.

Computing at Michigan Tech. Ah…coming back to the collective efforts of those who are actually trying to be a positive contribution to the planet. As we look forward to a season of leadership change here at Michigan Tech, with ongoing searches for the president and three deans, there are some who see a good opportunity for other types of changes as well. I am thinking particularly of change as it relates to computing and information sciences and how Michigan Tech will position itself in the years and decades to come. I count myself among those who would welcome a serious look at this issue. On Friday, August 18, Provost Jackie Huntoon convened a large group of stakeholders in computing at Michigan Tech for an all-day retreat where we explored a lot of different aspects of our approach to computing here. In attendance, and making two powerful presentations, was ECE alumnus Dave House, whom I have written about here before. Dave made the point that technology is changing rapidly in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and that Michigan Tech needs to adapt and be a leader in 4th IR technologies if we are to remain relevant. I couldn’t agree more. The whole point of the retreat was to open up hearts and minds to the possibility of change; no proposals were put on the table. This is going to be a long process, with lots of input from constituencies internal and external to Michigan Tech, and I have confidence that Provost Huntoon will guide that process effectively. This is something that is on my mind a lot these days, so you may be reading a lot more about it this year.

Personnel Changes. This year the ECE Department welcomes Dr. Tony Pinar as our new Lecturer and coordinator of the Senior Design program. I have asked Tony to concentrate this year on the quality and consistency of the student experience in Senior Design, and I know he will do exactly that. We also welcome Dr. John Pakkala, who will serve as our new Graduate Academic Advisor for course-option MS student. Both Tony and John hold PhDs from the department – Tony just last year under the direction of Prof. Tim Havens, and John many years ago under the direction of Prof. Jeff Burl. We are also dealing with the rather sudden resignation of Associate Professor Shiyan Hu, who has taken a chaired professor position at a university in Europe. I wrote recently about Shiyan’s exemplary professional service activity, and ironically it was this very activity that made him attractive for recruiting elsewhere. This is a blow for the ECE Department, but we congratulate Shiyan on his success and wish him all the best.

Well, I believe this brings us up to the present. We get one more breather, Labor Day weekend, before classes get underway next week. Make it a good one!

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University


Fridays with Fuhrmann: The Third Leg

FWFimage_20170728Following up on posts earlier this summer about university teaching and research, I thought this week I would write a few lines about the third piece in the academic triumvirate – service.

Teaching, research, and service are often listed together as the responsibilities of a university faculty member. Research is all about the discovery of new knowledge and teaching is all about sharing that knowledge with the next generation. Service, in this context, refers to all the things that we do to maintain a healthy community and an environment where those first two activities can thrive.

Service activities are normally divided into two broad categories – university service and professional service. University service includes all the things that we do for our own institutions, beyond teaching courses and carrying out research projects. Professional service are all those things we do to maintain the professional communities outside of the university, often but not always centered around a shared interest in a particular area of research or scholarship.

University service is closely connected with the concept of shared governance, a principle which maintains that the faculty have an important voice in the academic programs and policies of the institution. Since we have a voice in those policies and programs, it is incumbent upon the faculty to exercise that right through participation in a myriad of committees and other governance bodies that either make recommendations to the university administration (in the case of policy) or have the authority to make decisions (in the case of academic programs and requirements). This can happen at multiple levels. In the department, we have faculty committees that oversee our undergraduate and graduate academic programs, organize seminars, manage our various communication activities, ensure compliance with accreditation requirements, maintain our laboratories and other departmental facilities. The faculty as a whole has the authority to vote on any changes to our academic programs, provided they are consistent with university-wide standards.

At the university level, at Michigan Tech we have a governance body, comprising both faculty and staff, called the University Senate. Each academic department has one representative, chosen by the departmental faculty, and there are some at-large members as well. The primary responsibility of the Senate is the oversight of academic programs: all new academic programs at Michigan Tech have to go through a rigorous Senate vetting process that the proposing departments consider onerous at the time but in the end plays an important and valuable role in quality control. The Senate also makes recommendations on non-academic matters that have an impact on faculty, staff, and students, such as the sabbaticals, benefits, and compensation. Most of the Senate meetings I have been to (usually because the ECE Department has some proposal up for a vote) are pretty boring but I am first to admit that the work is important and I thank all the representatives for their service. Saeid Nooshabadi has been the ECE rep for several years, and now that Saeid is off on sabbatical Chris Middlebrook is taking over this year.

Most faculty members are involved in some form of professional service outside the university, most often but not always related to technical areas of interest. Everyone on the ECE faculty (I’m pretty sure) is a member of the IEEE, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, which incidentally is the largest technical organization in the world. The IEEE has a ton of activities related to the dissemination of technical information, including journals, conferences, and workshops. There are all sorts of ways to participate in those activities, such as being on technical committees, organizing workshops or sessions at conferences, or serving as an editor or associate editor for a journal. Generally speaking, I consider reviewing papers for journals and conferences as research activity and not service activity; something moves into the service category when there is more of an administrative function involved, such as being a conference organizer or a journal editor. That’s a subtle distinction and probably not all that important, although I do keep it in mind when doing faculty performance reviews.

There are lots of other professional organizations out there besides the IEEE, such as the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE) and the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), and no end of opportunities to serve. Volunteers are rarely compensated for their time, but such service is expected of academic personnel, which in effect means that the universities that pay faculty salaries are footing the bill for all these professional organizations. That’s not meant to be a complaint; the organizations and the universities have consistent missions and as such, one could view the professional organizations as extensions of the entire university system taken as a whole. The system works as long as everyone does their part.

I often take advantage of this blog to brag on someone in the ECE Department, and today is no exception. One of ECE faculty members most active in professional service over the past couple of years is Prof. Shiyan Hu. Shiyan is an associate professor on the computer engineering side of the department, with interests in design automation and cyber-physical systems. He led the establishment of the new IEEE Technical Committee on Cyber-Physical Systems, whose membership includes 21 IEEE Fellows and 12 current or former Editors-in-Chief for IEEE or ACM Transactions. He is the co-Editor-in-Chief for the new journal IET Cyber-Physical Systems: Theory and Applications, and has established two new IEEE workshops, Cross-Layer Cyber-Physical System Security and Design Automation for Cyber-Physical Systems. Over the years he has been an associate editor for three different IEEE Transactions, and he has been a special issue guest editor for the five others, including an upcoming special issue of the IEEE Proceedings, on Design Automation for Cyber-Physical Systems (watch for it in 2018.) Shiyan is bringing a lot of visibility to ECE at Michigan Tech and we certainly appreciate it.

In these past few columns I have attempted to emphasize not only what we do in academics, but why we do it. In the case of service, I see service as being all about building communities. In many aspects of academics, there is an element of competition: departments compete against each other within universities, individuals compete nationally and internationally for priority and respect in their research, and universities compete with one another for prestige, with the most visible example of the latter being the rankings put forth by U.S. News and World Report. Competition is healthy for spurring innovation and motivating us to be the best that we can be, but it also has the unhealthy side effect of building walls and turning us against one another. Through our service activity, whether internal or external to the university, we have the opportunity to build communities of like-minded individuals who agree to support each other, and maybe even set the rules of engagement for orderly and fair competition. It gives us the chance to reflect on the fact that, at the end of the day, we really are all in this together. I believe that the balance between striving to be our best individually, while supporting each other to be our best collectively, is a beautiful thing about being in academics and one of the reasons that we stay in these positions for as long as we do.

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Michigan Technological University


Fridays with Fuhrmann: European Vacation

FWF-image-20170721-v2FWF is taking a break this week, while my family and I visit Central Europe: Munich, Salzburg, Vienna, and Prague. Here is a photo of yours truly, looking like a typical American tourist, standing in front of the birthplace of Christian Doppler in Salzburg. Many of the readers of this column will know the importance of Doppler in radar signal processing.

Having a wonderful time – will be back next week.

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University