Change Leader Full Interview: Maintain a Mindset of Continuous Learning
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Babak Beheshti is an IEEE senior member and dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Sciences at the New York Institute of Technology.
V1 Media: Can you describe your education and career before Stewart Engineering?
Beheshti: IEEE has been part of my life since I was an undergraduate student in college. I’ve been a member of this professional organization ever since. I joined as a student member, got my bachelor’s and master’s and a doctorate in electrical engineering. I worked in the industry for about 20 years in the telecom industry, wireless industry. In parallel with that, I was a faculty member in College of Engineering and Computing Sciences at New York Institute of Technology. Since my initial joining of IEEE, it being a volunteer-led organization, I have worked my way up in the IEEE ranks. Currently I serve as a member of board of directors at the IEEE.
V1 Media: Tell me a little bit about the IEEE.
Beheshti: IEEE was formed in 1963 from joining of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers and the Institute of Radio Engineers. However, its roots go way back, more than 100 years since its original inception. As of 2018, IEEE is the world’s largest association for technical professionals. We have more than 400,000 members in more than 160 countries around the world with many areas of interest in technical areas across the spectrum. The objectives of IEEE are educational and technical advancements of electrical and electronic engineers, telecommunications, computer engineering and related disciplines. Since it’s a volunteer-led organization, I started as a volunteer at my local section area, worked my way up to being a region director and am a member of the board of directors in IEEE currently.
V1 Media: Could you describe some of the most important new technologies used in infrastructure monitoring and use?
Beheshti: I’ll start with one IEEE is involved in: standardization of wireless sensor networks. ZigBee is the commercial name for the IEEE 802.15.4 standard. Among the many other standards IEEE has introduced, this is a low-power radio protocol for connecting sensors wirelessly to one another, and it would be used when monitoring the health of bridges, tunnels, any type of infrastructure. Another technology I could mention is advanced battery technologies. Any portable-battery-operated device that monitors infrastructure and can’t be plugged into an outlet needs batteries that are energy dense and can provide energy to devices for a long time.
A proliferation of sensors in the last few years sense vibration, humidity, moisture, organic compounds, light, sounds, etc. These sensors convert natural phenomena to electrical signals that then can be sensed and processed by computerized sensor notes. This is going to be a game changer in infrastructure monitoring.
An upcoming technology that most people think of in terms of mobile wireless is 5G, the fifth-generation cellular standards, which will really enable devices to wirelessly monitor and transmit data through the 5G standard to a central location for processing. The whole concept of smart cities and monitoring the health of infrastructure would be closely tied into the capability that 5G offers.
V1 Media: Can you tell me a little bit how IEEE is helping to promote these technologies and champion their use among its members?
Beheshti: IEEE has a complex structure around the world. Some of it is geographically based, and these geographically based units provide opportunity for professionals within the discipline to meet, network and have discussions. But IEEE also has a technically oriented organization. So there are a number of technical societies and councils and interest groups focusing on various areas. So there are circuits and systems, there’s a communication society, there’s a computer society, and many new interest groups around AI and machine learning and so forth.
The idea behind these technical societies and the organizations underneath them isn’t only to provide opportunities for technical professionals to participate in development of new technologies, but also to disseminate information to the society as a whole, both members and non-members. Finally, IEEE is very actively involved for many years in developing standards that have been used in many areas of interest of IEEE for standardizing technologies that have reached a level of maturity that now can be deployed commercially.
V1 Media: What is IEEE’s definition of artificial intelligence? What type of role do you think it will have going forward?
Beheshti: Artificial intelligence in itself is not a new field, but to really take full advantage of its capabilities, certain algorithms couldn’t be run in computers five or 10 or 15 years ago. These are highly computationally intensive applications. With the advent of faster and faster computers, techniques have improved in machine learning, which is basically using sets of data and algorithms to determine patterns and conclusions to come up with more-robust artificial intelligence applications.
Deep learning, an even more computationally intensive branch of machine learning, has provided us with a lot of applications in terms of being able to have reliable image recognition, reliable voice recognition, voice generation.
IEEE not only is involved in advancements of these technologies, but IEEE is very much involved in the ethics of artificial intelligence. A white paper was recently published on all the ethical considerations that technical professionals need to be aware of. As an example, if you are using artificial intelligence in a self-driving car, obviously that would be a decision that has to be made by the machine-learning AI algorithms. Whether to drive the car into a tree to save a pedestrian or hit the pedestrian to save the driver’s life. This is an extreme example, but the idea of ethics being part of the ongoing technical discussions also is within the purview of IEEE.
V1 Media: You’ve mentioned wireless sensor networks, batteries, 5G and AI. Could you cite a specific example or two used to improve infrastructure?
Beheshti: If you have sensors that measure the strain on a particular material they’re connected to, and they’re combined with a computerized device to create a sensor node that can regularly measure the strain level on the particular and process it and transmit it, and now use the wireless and battery technologies so this device will be connected somewhere and not worried about for another year or two; you don’t need a technician to go and change the batteries frequently.
Now you can have these sensors attached to the pillars and the structural key points in a bridge or within a tunnel or any point of infrastructure. Rather than the current expensive and not necessarily most-accurate method of going and visually inspecting the infrastructure, you will have a continuous, 24/7 monitoring of the stress levels in the structure to collect the data and transmit it wirelessly to a central location. Now you would be able to not only perform an instantaneous assessment of the health status of the infrastructure, but you also can look at historical data, use data analytics and so forth to predict what will happen. Is this section of the bridge going to need strengthening because of the excess strains that have been monitored and noticed on it in the last few months or weeks? These technologies can very much change the whole paradigm of infrastructure monitoring.
Another example comes to my mind is a little bit more futuristic, because it would rely on 5G deployment to to take full advantage of it. Imagine if you now have drones that would be deployed to fly around and monitor various aspects of infrastructure, whatever those aspects might be, and in real time transmit their data from while they’re flying to a central location. If it’s live-streamed video, for example, that’s a massive amount of data. Imagine if you have many of these drones flying around, funneling huge amounts of data through your wireless network. 5G would be an enabling technology for drones to be used in aerial monitoring of infrastructure.
V1 Media: The infrastructure industry often gets a lot of criticism for being slow to adopt technology. What might you recommend to increase technology intake?
Beheshti: It should be a concerted effort by the trade journals and publications in the specific disciplines, for example infrastructure engineering, to look at the technologies just on the horizon and coming into commercial deployment. Look at integrating more with IEEE’s publications and various conferences that are at the ‘cutting edge’ of introducing many of these new technologies. And of course by individual engineers or technical professionals in these areas to become members of technical societies within, for example IEEE, and even in some cases lead the standardization efforts, or at least participate in standardization efforts.
All of the IEEE standardization efforts are very democratic and open. Individuals can participate and the “best of the best” technologies that are peer reviewed will ultimately become part of the standards. So it’s different from a lot of other closed-type standardization efforts that you need to pay a fee and be a high-stake member to be able to contribute and participate in these standardizations.
V1 Media: How can we reach not just engineers, but get more of the stakeholders, owners and decision makers in the infrastructure industry to become more informed about the technology that can help them? Would being more cognizant of the financial benefits of these technologies help? I know they often are looking at the bottom line first.
Beheshti: I think you really hit the point in the latter part of your question. As long as we are focusing–as geeks–on the technological wonders of these new technologies and ignoring the financial aspects, whether cost or cost savings of these technologies, we’re going to be leaving the decision makers out of it. For example, CapEx considerations are rarely discussed in technology news releases, right? There’s this wonderful technology, but we don’t talk about the capital expenditures that are going to be required to deploy that technology. Installation costs, training costs, training of your personnel to adopt this new technology, and operations and maintenance considerations and costs.
On the positive side, operational efficiencies obtained through adaptation of these new technologies, like what I mentioned with the wireless sensor that would monitor infrastructure, when there’s a concrete quantifiable analysis: by adopting business technology, there’s so much cost savings to the bottom line that will be realized. Then the decision makers will be more informed of the value of these technologies to really make the right decisions for their organizations.
V1 Media: But how do they find these types of results or summaries? Are they available at IEEE? Or can they look at other organizations that implemented these technologies? How can they do that without actually doing it themselves?
Beheshti: It may be available through IEEE. That’s not something that I have looked into, but I would offer that through these technical societies and organizations, people with like technical interests gather together and develop white papers and develop conferences or information sessions and so forth. In order for valuable information to be created, obviously it’s more than a one-person job. By pooling the talents of like-minded professionals in a professional organization, the economies of scale pay off. You would be able to generate study groups, generate these studies, publish them, and, of course, through a professional organization such as IEEE, now you will have vetted data, because you can find any type of information on the internet. The question is how much of it is valid and verified, and how much of it is not. But the information that comes through IEEE is vetted and verified through the inherent peer-review process of technical professionals. So it would be of value and credible to decision makers.
V1 Media: What can infrastructure engineers do to better their knowledge and use of new technology, and how they can help persuade others to use more and better technology?
Beheshti: I would say a three-pronged approach, at least. There may be other prongs, but at least these would be the key areas. Engineers should regularly participate in trade conferences and cross-disciplinary conferences. Again, IEEE offers thousands of these conferences per year around the world. And participating in these networking opportunities provides engineers with the “latest and greatest” technologies that are coming up.
The other prong I would probably recommend is to join professional organizations, because then the publications and resources are available through the members of these professional organizations, providing a regular stream of vetted information. I can’t overemphasize how important it is for one to have confidence in the reliability of the information one receives.
And probably the last prong every engineer should be using is the context that we all need to be in the mode of lifelong learning. The days that one went to school, got a degree and went to work, and never have to go back to school are all long gone. And I’m not talking about the traditional degrees. For example, the concept of micro-credentials is becoming a very hot topic, both in the industry and academia. The idea being that I, as a professional, should really take charge of my continuous education and participate in workshops, certifications and micro-credentials that will give me a measurable certification of having achieved a certain technical skill.
IEEE has an educational activities board that focuses on providing tons of opportunities for personal enrichment of engineers by having self-paced online courses they could participate in as well as workshops and webinars that are available for free to members and so on. The third prong I want to emphasize is this mindset of continuous learning, so you know what’s behind the horizon and coming around the corner.
My advice to young engineers, young professionals, is to constantly be aware of the fast pace of technology evolution and how it impacts how we do business. Just look at how technologies like rideshare with Uber and Lyft and so forth have completely changed the way the taxi business around the world has changed. Stay current and informed about the technology changes coming down the pike, so you can be ready and prepare for them. By the time a technology takes footing in the industry, it may be too late for you in your particular industry or particular company or business to remain competitive. You may have missed the window of opportunity on that. Finally, use IEEE as a professional organization to be the platform of your choice. Your professional home to gain access to networking and the vast array of validated technology information.
V1 Media: What might be a technology or two that’s not quite here yet or that might be under the radar for most of those paying attention?
Beheshti: It’s not under the radar, but it’s not here yet: I think 5G provides significant capabilities to be harnessed, particularly in the area of infrastructure engineering, because of the various technologies being built into the 5G standards. We talked about the capability to transmit massive amounts of data wirelessly, so that’s one aspect of it. There’s also “edge computing.” Imagine if you have a section of the city that’s monitoring a tunnel, bridge or group of them, but you don’t want to process the calculations to arrive at certain decisions far into the network because the latency that it takes the information to travel through the entire network may be unmanageable and unrealistic for some real-time applications. So in those situations you can actually place all the computational resources at the edge of the cloud, at the edge of the 5G network, very close to where you’re monitoring them, so it becomes a close resource for computation and analysis. I would say 5G is one of the big things that’s coming down the pike. At this point we are only using our imagination to see how it can impact various industry sectors.
V1 Media:Why do you say 5G so much over 4G? What are the biggest differences? Is it all the standardization? Why is that in particular such a big leap?
Beheshti: Three or four characteristics of 5G stand out to enable many other opportunities that we didn’t have with 4G. One is a capability to transmit data at high rates, which is about 100 times faster than what 4G can do. An other is a very small latency, by a factor of 10 or more. We’re looking at the latency of the information or data to be transmitted through the network to be less than one millisecond, less than one-thousandth of a second.
And the third characteristic that makes 5G significantly more advanced than its predecessor 4G is the concept of network slicing. The entire wireless network that we use in our daily lives, using 4G, now can be virtualized. If I’m using, for example, a Smart City or infrastructure monitoring application, I can basically section off a segment of the network with certain quality of service, with certain parameters and characteristics, guaranteed to me as the user of this application. This section will be isolated, both for security purposes, but also for resource-management purposes, from another segment of the network that, for example, is streaming multimedia, streaming audio or video or whatnot. So there are a number of enabling technologies with this 5G that makes it a significant leap forward as compared to 4G.