Where are the engineering hipsters?

enghipsterIts late and I’m on my way back from the final demo evening of the Advanced Skills Initiative (ASI). The ASI programme takes disgruntled academics and puts them through an intensive 8 week data science course so they can move into the bustling data science job market. I was a mentor on the machine learning front and it was great to see the fellows evolve and battle through their projects.

One thing struck me though. Something that has been bugging me for a while. Projects pitched at events and meetups like this invariably cover product recommendation, preference learning, financial NLP, churn prediction, adclick prediction, social media trending analysis, etc.

As somebody who likes tangible things, I can’t help but wonder. Where are the projects & startups from aerospace, automotive, marine and other engineering disciplines? Why aren’t we seeing projects from Airbus on smart IVHM, from Jaguar on crumple zones, from Reaction Engines on engine performance, from ASV on marine autopilots, from Princess on vibration control, from McLaren on race strategy, from Dyson on path planning, etc. I personally find these things hugely interesting and fascinating topics. The possibilities for data science / machine learning are endless, prognostics being the obvious example.

Are projects like this not interesting enough? Require too much specialised knowledge or equipment? Require a physics based, analytical approach? Too tangled up in certification, safety, and secrecy? Too “old fashioned” manufacturing? Too hard to test or start with small budgets? Not financially rewarding enough? Too stuck in old fashioned silos? etc.

Even if so, why aren’t we seeing at least more talks or public outreach about these things in arguably the biggest tech & innovation hub in Europe: London. The UK has a wonderful engineering heritage and it still is a huge part of the economy. The aerospace industry is second only to the US. As somebody who organises meetups and is quite well connected in the data science scene, I find it hard to find speakers from engineering sectors and it is extremely rare I bump into anybody with an engineering background (unless they moved to a hedge fund). Why isn’t this more obvious?

Maybe London is just the wrong scene, too dominated by finance & marketing. Maybe all these new tools & toys that the hipster startups use simply don’t apply to the world of building physical things. Maybe the audience for the Royal Aeronautical Society, IMechE & IET talks simply does not overlap with those attending the Machine Learning, Data Science, and Algorithms events. Maybe engineering is simply more of a niche thing.

I find this hard to buy though. There is a lot going on in London, a lot of money flowing around, and a strong talent pool to fish from. Why don’t more engineering companies engage? If Bloomberg can host a swish and very interesting meetup with >200 people from academia and the tech community. Why can’t McLaren?

Every time I hear somebody say they are working on financial sentiment analysis, a dress recommendation engine, or on brand recognition in social media, I die a little bit inside. Not to say those things are not interesting or useful things to work on. I know many clever people happily employed (and very well paid) doing exactly that. But for me, it just doesn’t do it.

Likewise, not to say there are no interesting or exciting startups in the engineering world. There are. Just not as visible or well known as I would expect them to be. Even General Electric, one of the worlds largest engineering companies, which has invested very heavily in data science and predictive analytics is hardly represented, if at all.

Where is the engineering equivalent of the “brogrammer” or “Yo app“? The resurgence of the Maker movement and the increased interest in IoT puts me a little at ease but still… What am I missing? Please prove me wrong.

I can’t help but see similarities when talking to high school students through my work as a STEM ambassador.

In any case, there is some exciting stuff going on my end. I will try to make my small contribution by pitching some interesting UAV related projects for the next cohort of ASI students.


PS: I could write a very similar post on humanitarian / development applications. But I guess there the answer is more obvious unfortunately.

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