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Ivan Zubrilin: “A Neural Network Will Never Be Able to Replace an Engineer”

Ivan Zubrilin: “A Neural Network Will Never Be Able to Replace an Engineer”

Самарский университет

The director of the Engineering Centre of Samara University and the head of the Youth Laboratory “Power Facilities” sketched a portrait of the engineer of the future

12.01.2024 2024-02-06
The director of the Engineering Centre of Samara University and the head of the Youth Laboratory “Power Facilities” sketched a portrait of the engineer of the future and warned that technical evolution, not revolution, will wait for the world.

According to Ivan Zubrilin, Director of the Engineering Centre of Samara University and Head of the Youth Laboratory “Power Facilities”, we are unlikely to notice technical revolution, since scientific and technological progress prefers evolutionary development. “Sobaka.ru” talked with one of creators of the virtual educational platform for studying the design of aircraft and rocket engines about the way of choosing by scientists a field for future discoveries, and whether engineers of the future should be afraid of developing neural networks.

How to get into science

People who come to science are usually talented in many fields. Have you ever regretted that you made a choice in favor of science?

Each of us is probable to experience moments of regretting the choice made. Such thoughts usually come when something does not work out or does not develop the way to be planned. No secret, I also sometimes think, “What will be if?” But this is nothing more than a moment of weakness, an emotional breakdown. Because I don’t regret at all that once I came to science and chose the field I work in today. Yes, I was highly likely to have found myself somewhere other than science. Just the other day, I talked with a friend who has his own business, and we found many common topics: optimization of business processes, intricacies of working with a team, etc. But all these “could” are nothing more than assumptions, and history does not tolerate the subjunctive mood. Frankly speaking, I periodically receive offers to change my field of activity, but I still work at the University because I am too dedicated to the business I engaged in.

Which of your developments are you most proud of?

You see, sometimes I think about this, and I seem to have no global development to be currently boasted about. I can’t show you something that has changed the life of mankind. But there are interesting achievements and discoveries that affect development of technology, propulsion engineering, and scientific and technological progress. For example, our platform, which allows studying design and operation of engines in virtual reality, has taken the educational process to a new level. But it so happened that today I am most interested in developing fuel mixtures and opportunities to use them in gas-turbine engines; in my opinion, this is quite an urgent problem. Similar to development of low-energy facilities, which we have engaged in for several years, there are many interesting problems in this field. Multi-fuel seems to me to be one of cornerstones for the entire aviation industry. And this field combines engineering and science in its purest form, because there is no progress in this theme without scientific research.

How do scientists choose a field for research? Is this a technical assignment or an unexpected insight?

Perhaps, it is the team, first of all. I believe, a lot depends on which team scientists get into: their environment determines the profile of their work and discoveries. Of course, an important role is played by the person who unites the team around him/her, and is able to spark with a scientific theme; that’s about scientists or engineers with a capital letter. And scientific schools should not be discounted either: they are also of great importance in this process, which is why the need for establishing and developing them is spoken so often. But! Scientific schools are created around people, as well. And there should be a system: if it turns out to be sustainable, the school will bring results. If not, alas. But this is only one way out of many. Getting into a certain field is also possible due to the technical task: we have gathered recently a very interesting interdisciplinary team that dealt with the problem of thermoacoustic instability of engines. This is when pulsations from interacting between acoustic and thermal fields, which can lead to deterioration of parameters or even structural failure, occur in the engine. And we gather not by chance: we were given a specific problem, took a couple of weeks to think about it, and agreed to address it, although the risks were very high. In the end, it was quite a success. Now we consider another complex interdisciplinary task from the customer, assessing the risks. But I’d like to repeat that, to my mind, first of all, the team influences the choice of the field. 

On the threshold of discoveries

One of the themes of your work is bio-additives to aviation fuel, which increase efficiency of engines. What if planes stop flying, using kerosene-burning engines? Will your work be reset to zero?

No, of course not. In fact, in terms of the environmental issue, this theme attracts me precisely by the fact that fuel additives are one of the main lines of further development of the aviation industry. Put it in two words, our additives are a temporary solution for the transition period, which is necessary for the entire infrastructure to remain unchanged, when the fuel and the engine type change. That is, we bring the fuel change closer with our own hands, as a technical revolution, but we want to evolve, for the purpose of avoiding the situation typical for a revolution: the old has already been swept away, and the new has not been ready yet. Indeed, our bio-additives are the starting point for transiting to the fuel obtained from renewable sources. So this area has long-term prospects.

Let’s move on from aviation to space: it always hurts me, an alumnus of SSAU, hard to hear and read that we have remained outside of space developments. Please tell me that this is not the case.

Of course, this is not the case. See, the space theme is very complex in itself, like any megaproject to be worked on by scientists all over the world. Take, for example, the Large Hadron Collider: no one has stopped our country’s participation in this project. Therefore, no matter what anyone says about space research, today it cannot be fully implemented by one country’s efforts. Or by two country’s efforts. Because we need to work together. We have experience, developments, and a certain niche that we occupy; after all, we have unreplaceable technologies, so the space programs to have already been launched will be incomplete without Russian scientists and engineers. But we have not only existing developments and research, which we are already involved in, but also new developments, research and solutions that will allow us to remain actively involved in space activities in the future. However, it is better to ask specialized experts about specific developments.

A portrait of an engineer of the future

Since we mentioned specialized experts, is it possible to assess the demand for the profession of engineer in the era when everyone wants to get into IT from the very childhood? And what kind of specialist is an engineer of the future?

You see, IT is a wide field of activity. And even if you narrow it down to developing software, there will still be many areas. However, the very building of programs, algorithms and structures is rather closely associated with engineering tasks: engineering and IT overlap greatly, and somewhere, there are also related areas. An engineer means, first of all, a universal way of thinking that can be applied to solving any problem. When we deal with a person who is able to solve practical problems with given limitations, integrate them into existing systems and develop these systems, we can confidently say that we deal with an engineer. At least in his/her heart. So, the professions of an IT specialist and an engineer have a lot in common. And, answering the question about an engineer of the future, I think (s)he will hardly differ from an engineer of the past. And it is in terms of the way of thinking. Systemness, capability to work in a system of limitations, courage and desire to solve practical problems are the set of skills defining the profession, which has not changed for many years.

Today, many people choose a profession based on a simple criterion, “I must be unreplaceable by robots or neural networks”. Should engineers worry?

You see, engineers currently face rather difficult tasks, which also tend to become more complicated from year to year, so we attitude to neural networks without fearing; moreover, we ourselves actively look for areas to apply them, for shifting some of work issues to them. We constantly communicate with software developers, and have recently come up with the bot “Assistant Chief Designer”, which evaluates design solutions based on existing developments. It allows using generative design based on constructive heredity, which, in theory, can be extrapolated, with further tracing its development. So far, it’s a little crude, but the prospects of neuroassistants are already clear. However, a neural network will never be able to replace an engineer.

Evolution, not revolution

What technological breakthroughs is the mankind waited for in the near future? And what prevents us from achieving a new level?

Do you remember how the taxi revolution happened? It didn’t happen suddenly: once Uber applications appeared, and then we stopped imagining that a taxi could be called in any other way. Food delivery has been harmoniously integrated into our lives in the same way. But, was it a revolution? Of course, no! The applications smoothly integrated into our lives and changed them. And all technical solutions, especially of a large-scale nature, seem to me to take a very long time to be prepared, for the purpose of smoothly entering our lives. Evolution, not revolution, awaits us: we hardly notice the changes taking place, which become visible only if we turn back. If we go into specifics and talk about my field, the key factor in the engine industry can be considered the time required for developing an engine from scratch to the first prototype. Previously, the result was considered excellent, if the engine was created over a decade, although there were individual precedents. The next step is reducing the period of developing the engine based on advanced design methods to five years. This can already be called a revolution: the entire industry of propulsion engineering is working to significantly reduce development time, using various IT platforms and solutions, new production technologies, including optimizing the educational process. Systematic preparation of the aviation industry for this process takes a great amount of work. And, of course, it cannot be done in one click: only the evolutionary process is possible here. Therefore, I would say that the major breakthrough awaiting us is significant reduction in the time it takes to bring new products to market.

Why has Russia, a country with amazing traditions in all areas, from design to invention, not been perceived as one of leaders of scientific and technological progress lately?

My counter-question is why Samara, with its longest embankment and luxurious beaches in the very centre of the city, is not perceived as a resort city outside the borders of the Samara Region? Though, when in 2018, foreigners visited us, I myself saw how Brazilians, who are difficult to be surprised with beaches, literally froze with astonishment, when finding themselves on the embankment. And then they did not know that in just ten minutes, they could appear on the other bank of the river and generally find themselves in another world. Answering the question seriously, I’d like to note that we are generally used to living and working based on the paradigms of the past: we lack some kind of courage and capability to work as an entrepreneur in the technical field. We lack such visionaries as Elon Musk and Steve Jobs. We look back on the past too much and too often, while we need to look forward. To form an image of the future without cutting ties with the past experience, but relying on it. I grew up reading sci-fi books by the Strugatsky brothers, who were engaged in doing right that – shaping the image of the future by touching on human and philosophical themes. Therefore, it seems to me that the sooner we refocus on the future, the faster our positions in the world will change.