Bret W. Lester

The Death of The Software Engineer?

There is a post going around Twitter this week. It's a video demonstrating a new "AI Software Engineer." Many are proclaiming the imminent death of the software engineer. Software engineers will be replaced by AI, according to many. And we're starting to see some living examples of how this might look.

I am reflexively skeptical of this claim (that software engineering will be replaced by AI). I've resisted the urge to post contrary replies to all such posts on Twitter. Because it is reflexive. I don't want to be reflexive. I want to examine why I am skeptical. It is an intuitive thing. I am skeptical for intuitive reasons. Why is it that I think AI will not replace software engineers?

Well lets dive into that question....

Good software is akin to art. You must have good taste and sensibility to produce good software. AI will not change this fundamental fact.

So in that regard, AI will, at best, be a servant in the software development process while the human, you know, the living breathing thing with senses and a particular TASTE, will direct it. A human still needs to be in charge.

And perhaps, many heralding the imminent death of the software engineer will agree with this point. It is particularly this that they are excited about. No longer will the "idea guy" be so dependent on the peculiar and strange "engineering type" to help implement their million dollar idea. No more uncomfortable interactions between A-types and introverts.

That is a bit cynical but there's some truth to it. It explains why venture capitalists (notoriously non-technical A-types) are so eager to pour money into this idea. There is an unspoken, perhaps subconscious desire among the "ruling class" (so to speak) to knock the engineering class down a notch, or even eliminate them entirely.

Now lets consider a little modern history to put this into perspective...

The internet, and the ensuing technological explosion, brought with it an increase in the prominence of "nerdy" types. You know, nerdy types who are good at brainy stuff like programming. The internet ushered in a new era where "guys who can code" enjoyed higher standards of living and social status. And assuming social status is a zero-sum game, this came at a cost to the social status of A-types, or "guys who are good at sports." In other words, the types of people who enjoyed elevated social status for so long had to reluctantly make way for the new "techno-elite," who were proving essential for mastering our new internet-connected world.

It's just a theory, mind you, but it provides a little perspective about why the investor class is suddenly so eager to invest in the death of software engineers.

But the question still remains. Will software engineering as a profession go extinct? Will it be replaced by AI?

Well, no. It will never disappear entirely. In the same way we will always need someone who understands how to build a computer from scratch, we will certainly still need people around who understand how to program the AI in the first place. So the more accurate and less hyperbolic question would be, will the software engineering profession be reduced to a niche of highly specialized engineers who are small in number and relatively invisible? Maybe. I don't know.

What I do know however is that software engineering, in other words, how we do things like App development, will change for ever. In fact it has already changed significantly. I can tell you personally that I use AI every day throughout the course of my software development, BUT, at the current state of the technology, if you don't have a technical background, you are at risk of the AI leading you down blind paths, spitting out code that doesn't work, or giving you something that is plain wrong. So there still needs to be a programmer at the wheel. People are saying that AI is improving so fast that this will soon become less of an issue. Maybe. But as things stand, the AI still needs a director.

As an independent developer who mostly works alone, so far, AI has only amplified my abilities rather than obviating them. And I only see this trend continuing. AI will continue to amplify the abilities of INDIVIDUALS. Someone working alone will be able to accomplish more as a DIRECTOR of AI. At best, I think AI will give anyone the ability to create software that works--software that fulfills a defined role. But I DON'T think that AI will give someone with low creativity and bad taste the ability to create something that not only works, but is novel and tasteful.

To wrap it up, while I don't think it will be eliminated permanently, yes I do think that the engineering profession has changed and will continue to evolve into something different because of AI. The effects it will have on the social hierarchy remains to be seen, but it is evident that it's great at drudge work, or the type of work that creative people don't want to do. And there is a lot of drudge work in the day to day of a software engineer, so, with AI, you can do more with less (engineers). We're already seeing a reduction in the white collar work force as a result, but declaring the death of engineering as a profession is a bit premature, to be kind. The real question is, what will we call the new class of people who are hyper-leveraging their existing technical and creative abilities with AI?


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