The Future Looks Bright for Problem Solvers with Science and Engineering Degrees

By Steve Hamm
Steve Hamm, IBM Writer
Steve Hamm, IBM Writer

My father was studying agricultural science at a junior college in Iola, Kansas, in 1939 when he got an opportunity to drive with friends in a new Chevrolet to the World’s Fair in New York City. There, exposed to a vision of an amazing future made possible by technology, he decided to change course and studying mechanical engineering so he could help make that vision come to life.

As an engineer for Westinghouse for more than 40 years, he played a role in some of the key technological advances that took place in the second half of the 20th century, including jet engines, space exploration, and nuclear power.

These days, World’s Fairs don’t play the same inspirational role that they once did, but you don’t have to be a visionary to see the tremendous opportunities that exist today at the intersection of science and society. When I look at what’s going on at IBM and elsewhere, it seems to me that never has a science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) degree been more valuable, nor have the applications of technology to real-world problems and puzzles been more varied and exciting.

If you’re a high school or university student with an aptitude for science and math, find a domain that inspires you and go for it. Here’s IBM Research VP David McQueeney talking about the professor who inspired him to pursue studies in physics.

One of the areas with a lot of promise is cognitive computing. In the future (starting right now) computers will increasingly learn, reason and interact with humans in ways that are more natural to us. This represents the biggest shift in the computing landscape since the first digital computers were invented in the 1940s. It has the potential to transform business, society and our personal lives.

But, unlike traditional computers, that primarily automated human processes, these new cognitive systems will mainly augment human thinking–so we can be better informed and can make better decisions.

Consider this: What if you had a cognitive application that helped you get the best education possible considering your interests and aptitude. The app would have an encyclopedic knowledge of educational opportunities, both formal and informal. Through interactions with you, the app would know how you learn best.  It would also know about current and future job opportunities–and the education, training and experiences that would be required to prepare you for them. Through a series of dialogues with you, the app would help you chart a course that would prepare you for your dream career.

Here’s IBM Research scientist Dario Gil explaining how learning systems will become our partners in decision-making.

The confluence of cognitive computing with other shifts in technology will amplify its impact. Cloud computing and the spread of mobile technologies will deliver the power of cognitive computing to anybody with Internet access–via a smartphone, tablet, laptop or desktop PC. In the past, the most powerful computing capabilities were available only to the rich and resourceful. In the future, they’ll be accessible to just about everybody. Think about how that changes the world order. Power will come to the people–individually and in groups.

Here’s IBM Research scientist Maria Ebling explaining how cloud computing will bring advanced medical treatment to people in community hospitals and clinics around the world.

My father is 93 now. He probably has a slide rule in the bottom drawer of his desk along with the TI electronic calculator he bought in the early 1970s, but he’s long out of the innovation game. Still, he’s amazed and inspired when I tell him about the projects that are underway today at IBM Research and elsewhere. He still has the capacity for wonder that he did when he had his mind blown at the 1939 World’s Fair. That’s the inspiration–and the potential reward– of a career in science and engineering. Like him, you can invent yourself and help reinvent the world.


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