Wednesday, November 29, 2023

The Engineer and The Computer Scientist

What is the difference between engineering and computer science? CS is not an engineering field, though there is some overlap. It's not the digital versus physical. To capture the difference we can look two tech CEOs dominating the news recently, Elon Musk and Sam Altman.

Engineers are problem solvers creating or improving technologies to reach a goal. Tesla has led the way for cars to become electric, connected and autonomous. SpaceX has develops highly capable rocket technology at lower cost. Ultimately though Tesla makes cars that go from A to B and SpaceX sends stuff into space. When Musk bought Twitter he focused on the engineering, but Twitter's challenges were not in its engineering and this is why Twitter/X has been floundering.

Computer scientists make platforms. The Internet, cloud computing, programming languages, mobile computing, cryptography, databases, social networks even NP-completeness don't focus on individual problems, rather they create environments that users and developers can apply to a variety of new applications and challenges.

AI is no exception. OpenAI has no specific goal or purpose it is trying to solve. There's AGI but that's more of a vague benchmark that may (or may not) be passed as ChatGPT and its successors continue to improve.

AWS, Python, Apple and OpenAI all have developers conferences. Tesla and SpaceX do not. Elon Musk has actually made Twitter/X harder for developers to build on. I don't hold high hopes for Grok.

It's not a perfect division, many engineers create platforms and computer scientists tackle specific problems. Nevertheless it's a good way to see the distinction between the fields.

Don't think the CS way is always the better way. You have less control of platforms, they can act in unexpected ways and people can use them unintentionally or intentionally to cause harm. Mitigating those harms is a challenge we must continuously address.


  1. "Twitter's challenges were not in its engineering and this is why Twitter/X has been floundering"

    Twitter's challenges are not in CS either. They are in the social sciences.

    1. Hilariously, Musk has an economics degree. They must not have not taught him not to anger and insult your paying customers (advertisers). Common sense would tell you that. Perhaps common sense was a prerequisite for the program but they forgot to check...

      I still maintain that Musk never intended to actually buy Twitter. It was just a smoke screen to allow him to sell 44 billion in overvalued Tesla stock without the SEC complaining or the stock crashing. (Tesla is ridiculously overvalued: it's 2.3 times more valuable than Toyota, but only sells 1/20 the cars). So the president dumping stock would have been a monster tell that the bubble was about to burst.

  2. I was going to make the same comment

  3. Today's Silicon Gulch honchos are neither computer scientists nor engineers. They're investors, businesspersons, folks with money who were there at the right time or simply guessed right. (Wiki reports that Sam Altman dropped out of college, Musk has a BA in Phyics and an SB in economics.) Even the Apple and MickeySoft originators weren't really technical types. Bill Gates was a BASIC fan with decent business intuitions in the 8-bit CPU days; but he was the guy who hired Dave Cutler, he was never Dave Cutler. Not even close.

  4. I don't think I agree. Some computer scientists create platforms, but I think all computer scientists and engineers are problem solvers. They just work with different media and have different goals. As for most of the folks others have discussed, I don't think it matters what degrees they have or whether they actually have done any of the coding or circuit designs because what they are are entrepreneurs who have a vision for the future. The best of them know what we'll want before we want it. They push the edges and often wreak havoc on the status quo. It may be that AGI will push humans out of the picture altogether, and the next step in evolution will have occurred. PS, Lance (Fellow PFF), fun to find you via this blog which ACM TechNews posted; I converted from an EE to a virtual CSer some 20 years ago!

  5. You lost me in the first paragraph referencing two charlatans Elon Musk and Sam Altman. Please find actual computer scientists and engineers for reference.