Fridays with Fuhrmann: In Defense of Silos

FWF-image-20171222-rev1One of the widespread truisms found throughout current thought on management and organizations is that silos are really horrible and that we have to do everything we can to break them down. Just Google the term “silos” and see what I mean. The term refers to vertically integrated units within a larger organization that keep to themselves, do not communicate or play well with others, and in some cases actually compete with other similar units. They are blamed for all manner of organizational ills such as inefficiency, lack of innovation, and resistance to change. When I think about this mindset I envision Dana Carvey’s impression of George H. W. Bush on Saturday Night Live years ago saying “silos…bad…baaad…”

I agree that anything that puts up barriers to communication and fosters unhealthy competition and duplication of effort is not a good thing. But, being the occasional iconoclast, I have to ask myself if maybe silos aren’t getting a bad rap here.

Let’s start with the physical objects that form the basis for the metaphor. Do they serve any useful purpose? Of course they do! A silo is a place to store your grain, to keep it clean and dry before it goes to market. Without silos farmers would just dump their wheat on the parking lot, in a big pile. Who wants that? They also keep the grain separated, in ways that make sense. As a general rule I don’t think we want our wheat and our corn to be mixed together all the time.

Have you ever driven across Kansas (or Minnesota, or North Dakota)? What is the first thing you see in the distance when you approach a small farm town, driving on those long flat roads on the prairie? Those silos tell us that we are approaching a small piece of civilization. They are a symbol of that little town that can be seen for miles around – they give the community a sense of identity. Since it is a place where farmers come from the nearby land to do part of their business, they also provide a focal point for the community. That really doesn’t sound all that bad to me.

Is there something we can learn from these simple analogies that applies to the organizational setting? I would argue yes. Some sort of organization that brings people together, working for the common good, is very useful. As human beings we seek out others with similar goals and similar ways of looking at the world, knowing that we can do more together than we can as individuals. The tribe is good for the safety and security of the individual. We don’t want the results of all our hard work to be dumped out on the parking lot; we want to join it with the hard work of others in an organizational structure that supports us as individuals. Division of labor is also well-known to be an important component of economic growth and prosperity. Group formation and division of labor play out at all levels of human society, from small businesses and universities to entire nations and the world. Throughout human history the formation of smaller units with differing objectives has happened naturally – it’s just the way we are.

I have come to the conclusion recently that the term “silos” is a politically charged word, much more than people might realize. It is an accusation that is easily leveled against any group of people that are trying to get their act together. How many times have you heard “you have to collaborate…you have to cooperate…you have to get along with others” – which sounds great, but it really might be just a way to keep people in their place. Think about it at the society level. The first thing that is said about groups of people trying to organize for their own common good, perhaps to accumulate a little bit of the political power that is enjoyed by others, is that they are disruptive, that they are troublemakers, that they are not good citizens. Sound familiar? And who makes these accusations? Two groups: 1) those that are already in positions of power and influence, who do not want to be challenged and do not want the competition, and 2) those who are even further down on the economic or political ladder, disorganized, jealous or envious of those who are trying to improve their lot in life. Both groups feel threatened and are driven by fear.

These are pretty strong words, I realize, but I put them out there because I want my readers to check in with themselves and ask: what are we afraid of when we see change on the horizon? Why do we react the way we do when we see groups coming together to benefit themselves, when in fact they could very well be a benefit to everyone else at the same time? Why do we insist that one group of people has to be invisible supporters, while others enjoy international prestige and recognition?

One of the lone voices I found that argues in defense of (the right kind of) silos is this piece from Information Week:

I don’t know much about this website, and even less about the author, but I think the article makes a nice point. The author claims that in an organizational network, describing who is connected to whom, there is a “sweet spot” somewhere between total anarchy, where everyone is connected to everyone but there are no organized groups, and total isolationism, where people work only within their units and don’t talk to anyone else. The ideal situation is one in which there are organized units that do work for their own internal good, but where there is also plenty of give and take between units, based on mutual respect and a larger sense of purpose for the entire organization. It is sort of a “fences make good neighbors” argument.

Here is another nice article along the same lines. This one emphasizes the importance of ventilation in real silos, as a metaphor for communication among groups:

[If there is one good thing about the silo discussion, it is that it provides us with plenty of good metaphors we can relate to.]

I think there are some good lessons here for Michigan Tech, and other universities like us. I want us to stop using the term “silos” and replace it with “pillars of excellence.” When people think of Michigan Tech, I want them to think about those things that we are really good at, and I want those things to be sufficiently well-organized so that they attract the right kind of attention, just like those real-life silos on the prairie. I do not want to set up unproductive conflict and competition nor shut down lines of communication, but I really do want to raise up and celebrate those things that are important to us, for all the world to see. We already have a couple of those things, and maybe it’s time we built a couple more. Our stakeholders – students, parents, industry, alumni, and research sponsors – deserve nothing less.

This is my last FWF for the year. Through a quirk in the schedule this year, with Christmas and New Year’s Day falling on Mondays, the university is unofficially but effectively shut down for all next week. My very best wishes to all my readers for a happy holiday season and a relaxing winter break. See you in 2018!

– Dan

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

Fridays with Fuhrmann: On Academic Disciplines

FWF-image-20171215-rev1Read just about any description of research activity in the United States today, say from the National Science Foundation, and you are sure to find something about the importance of multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary work. The idea that people need to work together in teams and across traditional boundaries has become dogma in research communities, and casting one’s work in an interdisciplinary light has become all but required for obtaining research funding. Of course, I am all for people working together in teams when that makes sense, and for not letting boundaries get in the way of good work and collaboration. But, the emphasis on interdisciplinary work that has become so prevalent in recent years has gotten me to wonder – what makes an academic discipline, anyway? And who gets to decide?

The reason we have academic disciplines in the first place is that the sum of all human knowledge is vast, and there is no way for any one person to know it all. We have to specialize somewhat, to decide what it is we are good at and what we are passionate about. It also helps for us to build communities of like-minded people, with common knowledge and common values, and from these values are born the branches of knowledge that we think of as academic disciplines. The organization of all universities I can think of is built around such disciplines, usually in a hierarchical manner with very broad categories at a high level (engineering, arts & sciences, business, etc.) then with increasing levels of specialization as you drill down into departments and degree programs. There is no one model for all universities, but a lot of universities in the United States, especially large comprehensive universities, look very much alike.

For the most part this system works pretty well. It facilitates communication and a common sense of purpose among groups of people, and that is usually a good thing for getting work done and discovering new things. For research communities, there is a process one goes through to become a part of the group, called getting a doctoral degree (PhD or similar); usually through qualifying examinations or other milestones one proves that he or she has what it takes to become part of “the club.” When we craft degree programs, even at the undergraduate level, we often ask the question “what is it that we expect everyone in our field to know?” and then build courses and course sequences appropriately. When we go out into the world, we can label ourselves as a certain kind of person with a certain set of knowledge and skills, and this division of labor has served us well economically.

What we have to recognize, however, is that these things that we call disciplines are not necessarily predetermined in some obvious or logical way. Often there is a historical evolution of fields, and the organization may be an artifact of the way things turned out in the discovery of new knowledge. A discipline is a branch of knowledge, and the nature of the branch is a result of how the tree grew. I sometimes think of academic disciplines as “quantization bins” for knowledge, and there are a lot of different ways one could do it. Another analogy is this land mass in North America we call the continental United States. We think of that as being carved up into 48 states which seems natural to us, the proper order of things, but it is really the result of 240 years of history and politics, and if we were to start something from scratch today we might come up with something entirely different. (For an entertaining look at that last topic, read How the States Got Their Shapes, by Mark Stein.)

Sometimes the topics that get mashed together to create a discipline seem really far apart intellectually, although when viewed through an historical lens it makes all the sense in the world. The best example I know is my own field of electrical engineering. This is a relatively new discipline (when compared to disciplines with ancient roots like mathematics or physics) and it has gone through a remarkable evolution in its 150-year history. It began when smart people recognized that these forces of nature we collectively call electricity could be harnessed for the good of society. They developed tools for the generation, transmission, and distribution of electric power, and the use of that power to turn motors and light lights. Shortly thereafter, however, others like Samuel F. B. Morse and Alexander Graham Bell figured out that those same forces of nature, and that same copper wire, could be put to use transmitting information at high speed and over long distances. What happened next was very interesting: in order to take advantage of the new physical technology, we needed a new branch of knowledge to decide how best to encode information into time-varying physical variables like voltage and current, and at its core that branch of knowledge really has nothing to do with voltage and current. What resulted is what we now call communication theory. This new mathematical theory of communication was beautifully crystallized in the work of the pioneering engineer and mathematician Claude Shannon, and an even more mathematically elegant and sophisticated field of information theory was born. Information theory is the foundation for all digital communication that makes smart phones and the Internet work. (Claude Shannon is the closest thing we have in EE to an iconic hero; he is our Albert Einstein. His bronze bust is featured in this week’s photo. There are at least two castings I am aware of, one on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and the other in his home town of Gaylord, Michigan.) Take a look at the IEEE Transactions on Information Theory and you will find no mention of volts, amps, or watts – it’s all math. Similar stories can be told about signal processing, or control theory, and of course computer science and computer engineering. The field of electrical engineering has branched off in dozens of different directions and now it encompasses a highly diverse set of topics and skills – and yet we still think of it as a discipline with a common core of knowledge.

Having what you do included in a discipline like electrical engineering brings certain advantages. There is the name recognition and the respect that goes with the title of electrical engineer. It is a job title for companies to post, to which prospective employees can respond. It is well-recognized on college campuses and known by students as a great major with lots of potential (we like to think so, anyway). The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, or IEEE, is the largest professional organization in the world. Essentially, electrical engineering as field, despite its huge technical diversity, enjoys many of the benefits that people look for when they form societal groups – tribes, gangs, whatever you want to call them. We EEs are a tribe with a shared sense of identity.

What about the situation where, in the vast domain of human knowledge, there are bits and pieces scattered about that intellectually could be considered very close, but have not been pulled together into one discipline? One advantage of working in such fields might be that one’s work is always considered interdisciplinary, since it falls in the cracks between the historically established and recognized disciplines. That might be great for writing grant proposals, but I am not sure it outweighs the disadvantages of being academically homeless, of not being part of a tribe with shared values and shared culture. When one works at the boundaries, no matter how artificial those boundaries might be, one never gets to be on the inside. That sense of independence might be exhilarating at first, but after a while it might also get to be disheartening. Chris Byrnes, my former dean at Washington University in St. Louis, said it best when he said: you can’t be multidisciplinary without a discipline.

Those who follow this column and/or know what I have been up to lately will not be surprised to learn that I am talking about computing. I have come to the conclusion that computing in a very broad sense is a discipline, and if it is not it should be. The reason it is not considered a discipline now is much the same reason that electrical engineering is a discipline: it is an artifact of the historical evolution of the field. When I talk about computing I have a pretty big bucket of topics, including: core computer science, software engineering, computer systems, system administration, computer networks, cybersecurity, high-performance and scientific computation, data science, statistics, analytics, information systems, medical informatics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, computer engineering, computer architecture, robotics, automation, the Internet, web-design, graphic design, multimedia systems, video games, human-computer interaction, and probably a lot more. If one looks at that laundry list I imagine that one reaction might be – wow, that certainly is a diverse set of topics. To which I respond, yes, but it is no more diverse than that set of topics that we bundle together and call electrical engineering. Or, if one wants to argue that point (and I could see it) I can certainly say that the list above is not nearly as diverse as everything we call just engineering. The main difference is, while one might find a thread of intellectual consistency throughout those topics, they all came from different areas, unlike the story of electrical engineering where one thing led to another, which led to another, and so on. Furthermore, since there are so many different origins, a variety of different groups can and do lay claim to them. The question we have to ask is, does the current way we think about what is a discipline, or what falls in the spaces between disciplines or overlaps multiple disciplines, continue to serve us in our quest for the discovery of new knowledge?

To be continued. Next week: In Defense of Silos.

Until then,

– Dan

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

James Parm BSEE ’81 to Deliver Commencement Address

parm_james-commencement2017More than 360 bachelor’s, master’s and PhD recipients are expected to attend Midyear Commencement Saturday (Dec 16). Ceremonies will take place at 10:30 a.m. in the Wood Gym of the Student Development Complex.

James Parm, partner at Inc. CEO Project, will deliver the commencement address for Michigan Tech’s Midyear. Parm graduated from Michigan Tech in 1981 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and was inducted into the ECE Academy in 2012.

In his current position, Parm provides business strategy to corporate CEOs. He has a long and distinguished career leading international technology companies including Stratos, Inmarsat PLC and Shell Offshore Services Company.

Parm and his wife Jean, a 1982 Tech graduate, have established the Jim and Jean Parm Endowed Scholarship. The Parms live in Casey Key, Florida. At the commencement ceremony, Parm will receive an Honorary Doctorate of Philosophy.

Havens and Pinar Publish and Present on Fuzzy Systems

Tim Havens (ECE/CS) and Tony Pinar (ECE) published “Measures of the Shapley Index for Learning Lower Complexity Fuzzy Integrals” in Granular Computing and “Efficient Multiple Kernel Classification Using Feature and Decision Level Fusion” in IEEE Transactions on Fuzzy Systems, December 2017.

Havens presented a paper co-authored by Pinar entitled “Generating Random Fuzzy (Capacity) Measures for Data Fusion Simulations” at the IEEE Symposium Series on Computational Intelligence (IEEE SSCI 2017) in Honolulu, HI, from Nov. 27 to Dec 1, 2017.

Timothy Havens
Timothy Havens
Tony Pinar
Tony Pinar

Faculty claim Maxwell Cup in high scoring tilt against students, 12-10

hockey-2017The faculty pulled out a thrilling 12-10 come-from-behind overtime victory in the 2017 edition of the annual ECE student-faculty hockey game, held at the MacInnes Ice Arena on Saturday, December 2. Both sides showed energy and enthusiasm in the first period, with goals see-sawing back and forth to a score of 5-4 with students in the lead at the end of the period. The defenses stepped it up in the second period, with only one goal scored mid-period by the faculty to even things up at 5-5, until the students scored two quick goals in the last 30 seconds to go ahead 7-5. In the last period, both sides battled to 10-8 with students on top with two minutes to go. The faculty pulled the goalie and scored two more goals to tie it up 10-10 with just seconds remaining. The game went to a 5-round shootout, which the faculty took in four rounds 2-0, for a final score of 12-10. Special mention goes to Mark Maroste for scoring two goals in regulation and one in the shootout, to Adam Webb for a hat trick in regulation and for the second and winning shootout goal, and to faculty goalie Brian Hutzler for turning away roughly 100 shots and shutting out the students in overtime.

The game was enjoyed by the largest crowd ever to attend the annual department event, and the same crowd enjoyed numerous door prizes and pizza after the game. A good time was had by all, and many of the aging faculty players could still walk after it was all over.

Fridays with Fuhrmann: What’s In A Name?

FWF_image_20171201_STEM LogoThis week I want to follow up on my column from two weeks ago, before Thanksgiving, on the various ways that we use the words associated with my line of work: science, computing, engineering, technology, and mathematics. This is mostly a random collection of observations on the strange ways that we use these words, without a whole lot of practical solutions. Think of it as the grammar maven (see FWF 06/16/2017) meeting the engineering professor.

A quick recap of the main points from the last column. Science is the human endeavor of figuring out how the world works, and creating mathematical models for it. Engineering is the human endeavor of designing tools to improve our way of life, often taking advantage of all that we have learned from science. Technology is the set of tools used by society, resulting from all our hard work as engineers. I made the point that engineering usually refers to the development of physical tools, and that there does not exist a good work in the English language to describe the process of designing cognitive tools; computing was the best I could come up with.

Of all the words listed above, it seems to me that science is the one that commands the most respect in academia and in the general public. There are many ways that we attach the word science to things to give them more gravitas. For example, what is the name of the degree that we confer to graduating engineers in the United States? Bachelor of Science. (Let’s set aside the use of the word bachelor for now – I’m not going there.) It seems to me that Bachelor of Engineering would make more sense, but you rarely hear that, if you did you would probably consider it “less than.” We do have both Master of Science (MS) and Master of Engineering (ME) degrees in engineering fields in the United States, but there is little consensus on what those degree titles mean. In many places, the MS program involves a thesis (which means there may be some actual science involved) whereas the ME program is coursework-based and may have more room for courses in business and management. However, at Michigan Tech we have coursework-based MS programs, particular in electrical engineering and mechanical engineering, because we have concluded that there is broader acceptance of that degree name among working professionals. The degrees Bachelor of Technology (B. Tech.) and Master of Technology (M. Tech.) are also fairly common outside the United States.

Confusion about the distinction between science and engineering, or perhaps between scientists and engineers, has always been a pet peeve of mine (just ask my family). If you ask the general public who is responsible for the highly complex tools that we use every day, such as computers, automobiles, and smart phones, chances are you will get the answer “scientists.” Popular culture doesn’t help to clear up the notion that there is a pecking order: in “The Big Bang Theory” the physicist Sheldon is always berating Wolowitz for being merely an engineer. Please do not misunderstand – I have the highest respect for good scientists and all that they do, my frustration has only to do with the misperceptions about what that enterprise is all about and how it relates to other activities.

Here at Michigan Tech our math department is called the Department of Mathematical Sciences. I should probably talk to someone over there before writing these words, but that mash-up makes no sense to me at all. Similar to the situation with engineering, science is one thing and mathematics is another. Mathematics is the world of pure logic, something that springs from the human imagination and where truth is absolute. Science is a little messier, where we try the understand how things work, where there is no absolute truth but only higher and higher levels of confidence in theories and hypotheses. Mathematics is of course the language of science, and it is what gives the ability to generalize what we have seen, to extrapolate from what we have seen to things that we have never seen before. For example, consider Newton’s Second Law, F=ma. We can conduct experiments to test the correctness of this hypothesis forever, applying a force to a mass m and measuring the acceleration a, but we can never test it for all possible combinations of F and a. However, if we believe that our experiments confirm that validity of that mathematical model, then we can believe that it will hold true even for combinations of F and a that we have never seen before. [Aside: F=MA is also known as Newton’s Second Law of Graduate Education, applied to PhD students who fail their qualifying examinations. But I digress.] As with scientists, I have the highest respect for mathematicians and all that they do. Math is a beautiful subject, and I only wish I were better at it. I also wish that our engineering students, both undergraduate and graduate, would not find mathematics as something mysterious and unobtainable, and that they would not freak out every time they see the word “proof.” Maybe I wish too much.

Speaking of odd mash-ups, we also have the term engineering technology. I know what people mean when they use that term, but that does not mean it makes sense from an English usage point of view. Engineering is one thing (a human endeavor) and technology is another (a set of tools). I have no problem with our School of Technology, which teaches students about tools and prepares them to implement them in industry or society. I just don’t get where the modifier “Engineering” comes in. Instead of saying Electrical Engineering Technology it would make a lot more sense to say Electrical Technology or perhaps Electrical and Electronic Technology which is rare although I have seen it. No matter what I think, Engineering Technology is a thing; the term is used nationwide and it is recognized by our accreditation body ABET. We are stuck with it.

The words I have referenced today – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics – have been put together in the popular acronym STEM. We hear all the time about the importance of STEM education, and we think of Michigan Tech as a STEM university. That is all well and good, but I have to come back to that fifth word – computing – and wonder where that fits in. Where is computing in STEM? Even though I have defined technology as a set of tools, twice now, I think that in the context of this particular acronym and its use in public policy discussions, “technology” is actually a code word for “computing.” When we talk about STEM, we really mean Science, Computing, Engineering, and Mathematics, all four of which are human endeavors, so they are parallel and go together nicely. The problem is, we can’t make a good acronym of those – SCEM? MESC? Stem is already a simple English word that is easy to pronounce, so I see the appeal. The scant evidence I have for this hypothesis lies in the images that people use to illustrate STEM. Just look up STEM on Google Images and you will find lots of examples of graphics like the one accompanying today’s column (for which I credit Student Affairs at Lehigh University.) If there are little icons associated with the four letters in STEM, the one that goes with T is almost always very computer-y, like the on-off button in the example above.

Again, nothing I say here is really an attempt to get people to change the way they use language. There are a lot of terms in English like “engineering technology” that are just idiomatic and are not built using a logical grammatical construction. However, it is good to be aware of that fact. The words we use and way we use them have a tremendous but often subtle influence on the way we think about things. I encourage all my readers to pay attention and to be as precise as possible whenever that makes the most sense – say what you mean, mean what you say.

– Dan

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

Fridays with Fuhrmann: The Language of Technology


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:


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.


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 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

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 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

Showing of AlphaGo includes AI panel discussion with ECE faculty and alumnus

alphgoTonight’s viewers of AlphaGo will get the opportunity to learn more on the research and application of artificial intelligence (AI) happening today, here at Michigan Tech and beyond. A panel discussion with Dr. Timothy Havens (ECE/CS), Dr. Laura Brown (CS), Dr. Steven Goldsmith (MEEM/ECE), Dr. Scott Marratto (HU), and Josh Manela (ECE alumnus) of Ford subsidiary Argo AI will follow the screening.

AlphaGo: 7:30 p.m. Friday, November 3, Rozsa Center for the Performing Arts

AlphaGo is featured in this year’s 41 North Film Festival hosted by the Rozsa Center for the Performing Arts. Directed by Greg Kohs, the documentary chronicles a journey from the halls of Cambridge, through the backstreets of Bordeaux, past the coding terminals of DeepMind in London, and, ultimately, to the seven-day tournament in Seoul. As the drama unfolds, more questions emerge: What can artificial intelligence reveal about a 3000-year-old game? What can it teach us about humanity?