Terra incognita

Terra incognita

by michael borth

The engineers of Brainport Eindhoven realize cutting edge high-tech systems. We at ESI make them better at that. While ESI’s mission is aptly summarized with these few words, one wonders: How far do we go here?

Granted, there is more than one track we pursue with our partners. Others at ESI will tell you about how our competence development program uplifts single discipline engineers to valued system architects. Or how computational modelling that we develop identifies flaws in system designs with unprecedented speed and accuracy.

Then, again: How far do we go? Or, phrased differently: When we make you better at what you do today – do we prepare you for the tasks of tomorrow as well? Or are there, somewhere down the road of system engineering, challenges that we are not able to solve by today’s engineering methodologies?

Will there be the day when better does not cut it any longer, as it needs to be different?

I think so. I believe that the map of system engineering is not yet fully drawn. That there are white spaces of terra incognita. That we are on a journey of discovery as high-tech systems move beyond our current level of understanding and engineering practice.

But, as the classics suggest, there might be dragons beyond the edge of the map:

Smart systems will balance conflicting behaviors goals, like saving energy and providing comfort functionality – and they might become instable as they oscillate between, exposing previously unknown emerging effects at runtime. The availability of data will bring forward self-learning controllers that can constantly respond to changes in the environment – but which might contain hidden tipping points that abruptly skew system behavior in ways no engineer can foresee. Cyber-physical devices will adapt to their system of systems context – but doing so, they open a Pandora’s Box of interaction and orchestration effects beyond the area of control of their manufactures, potentially wreaking havoc on all runtime optimizations.

We will have to face these and other dragons, since our field moves on.

Better we do it prepared. Better we find a path in the ongoing efforts of digitalization, the integration of IoT, and the fusion of data science into system engineering. A path traversing the edge of current system engineering practice, seeking twin items: first, the awareness of these challenges and their impact and, second, the extension of our map, that is, knowledge on tomorrow’s approaches.

This is Engineering Terra Incognita. This is the mission of this blog.

Welcome to the journey.