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Is There a Future for Software Engineers? The Impact of AI [2024]

Last updated on
January 26, 2024



Is There a Future for Software Engineers? The Impact of AI [2024]


The age of artificial intelligence (AI) is upon us, and many software developers fear that they won’t be able to stay relevant.

It would be easy to dismiss their concern about the future of their profession as yet another example of the Luddite fallacy, the simple observation that new technology doesn’t destroy jobs because it only changes the composition of jobs in the economy, but there are many indicators that paint the future of software developers in much darker colors.

Growing worries

According to a team of researchers at the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, there’s a high chance that AI will replace software developers as early as 2040.

“Programming trends suggest that software development will undergo a radical change in the future: the combination of machine learning, artificial intelligence, natural language processing, and code generation technologies will improve in such a way that machines, instead of humans, will write most of their own code by 2040,” state the researchers.

Software developers are understandably worried. In fact, nearly 30 percent of the 550 software developers surveyed by Evans Data Corporation, a California-based market research firm that specializes in software development, believe that their development efforts will be replaced by artificial intelligence in the foreseeable future.

According to Janel Garvin, CEO of Evans Data, the fear of obsolescence due to AI, “was also more threatening than becoming old without a pension, being stifled at work by bad management, or by seeing their skills and tools become irrelevant.”

How AI changed the software development world

AI has significantly impacted the software development landscape in recent years, bringing about several notable changes and advancements. Here are some ways in which AI has influenced software development:

Automation and productivity

AI has enabled automation of various software development tasks, boosting productivity and efficiency. For example, AI-powered tools can automatically generate code snippets, perform code refactoring, and assist in bug detection and fixing. This automation helps developers save time and focus on more complex and critical aspects of software development.

Testing and quality assurance

AI has improved the testing and quality assurance processes. AI-based testing tools can analyze code, identify potential vulnerabilities, and automatically generate test cases. Machine learning techniques are employed to learn from past test results and predict areas of code that are more likely to contain bugs. This helps developers identify and fix issues early in the development cycle, leading to higher-quality software.

Natural language processing (NLP)

NLP, a subfield of AI, has made significant strides in understanding and processing human language. NLP technologies have influenced software development through the development of chatbots, virtual assistants, and voice-activated interfaces. These applications allow users to interact with software systems using natural language, enhancing user experiences and opening up new avenues for software development.

Intelligent recommendations and personalization

AI algorithms can analyze vast amounts of data to make intelligent recommendations and personalize software experiences. For example, AI-powered recommendation systems are used in e-commerce applications to suggest products based on user preferences and browsing history. Similarly, AI can personalize user interfaces, content, and features based on individual user behavior and patterns.

Data-driven decision-making

With the increasing availability of data, AI techniques, such as machine learning, have enabled developers to make data-driven decisions in software development. Machine learning algorithms can analyze large datasets, extract patterns, and make predictions. This helps developers in various areas, such as predicting user behavior, optimizing performance, and improving security.

Code generation and optimization

AI can generate code based on existing patterns and examples. This includes auto-complete suggestions in integrated development environments (IDEs) and AI-generated code snippets for specific tasks. AI can also optimize code by identifying redundant or inefficient parts and suggesting improvements.

DevOps and continuous integration

AI has contributed to the evolution of DevOps practices and continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD) pipelines. AI techniques can analyze code changes, test results, and production metrics to provide insights on performance, quality, and potential issues. This helps streamline the software development lifecycle, improve deployment processes, and enhance overall software quality.

It's important to note that while AI brings advancements and automation to software development, it does not replace the need for skilled human software engineers. Human expertise is still essential for designing robust systems, ensuring ethical considerations, and understanding the broader context of software development projects.

Tools to replace software developers?

There are several AI tools and frameworks that are commonly used in software development to facilitate work and enable the development of AI-driven applications. Here are some of the most popular ones:

  1. TensorFlow: TensorFlow is an open-source library developed by Google that is widely used for building and training deep learning models. It provides a flexible and comprehensive ecosystem for developing various AI applications and supports a wide range of platforms and devices.
  2. PyTorch: PyTorch is another popular open-source deep learning framework known for its dynamic computational graph, which makes it easier to debug and experiment with models. It has gained popularity for its simplicity and is commonly used for research and rapid prototyping of AI models.
  3. scikit-learn: scikit-learn is a machine learning library for Python that provides a range of algorithms and tools for tasks such as classification, regression, clustering, and dimensionality reduction. It offers a simple and consistent API and is widely used for traditional machine learning tasks.
  4. Keras: Keras is a high-level neural networks API that runs on top of TensorFlow or other backend engines. It offers a user-friendly interface for building and training neural networks, making it popular among beginners and researchers. Keras provides an abstraction layer that simplifies the process of creating and experimenting with neural networks.
  5. OpenAI Gym: OpenAI Gym is a popular toolkit for developing and comparing reinforcement learning algorithms. It provides a collection of environments and tools for training and evaluating reinforcement learning agents. OpenAI Gym is widely used for research and experimentation in the field of reinforcement learning.
  6. Jupyter Notebooks: Jupyter Notebooks are interactive web-based environments that allow developers to create and share documents containing live code, visualizations, and explanatory text. They are widely used in the AI community for data exploration, prototyping, and sharing research findings.
  7. Natural Language Toolkit (NLTK): NLTK is a Python library that provides tools and resources for working with human language data. It offers various functionalities for tasks such as tokenization, stemming, part-of-speech tagging, and sentiment analysis. NLTK is commonly used in NLP-related projects.
  8. Apache Spark: Apache Spark is a distributed computing framework that provides a unified analytics engine for big data processing. It offers efficient data processing capabilities and supports machine learning and graph processing algorithms. Spark is commonly used for large-scale data analysis and AI applications that require handling massive datasets.
  9. GitHub Copilot: GitHub Copilot is an AI-powered code completion tool developed by GitHub in collaboration with OpenAI. It uses machine learning models trained on a vast amount of code from open-source repositories to suggest code snippets and completions as developers write. Copilot aims to assist developers in writing code faster and more efficiently by providing context-aware suggestions directly within their coding environment.
  10. Microsoft Azure Cognitive Services: Microsoft Azure offers a suite of AI services known as Cognitive Services. These services provide pre-trained AI models and APIs that developers can use to add various AI capabilities to their applications. Some examples include computer vision, natural language processing, speech recognition, and sentiment analysis. Azure Cognitive Services simplify the integration of AI capabilities into software development projects.
  11. IBM Watson: IBM Watson is a comprehensive AI platform that offers a range of services and tools for building AI-powered applications. It provides capabilities for natural language understanding, visual recognition, speech-to-text, text-to-speech, and more. IBM Watson offers pre-trained models and APIs that enable developers to leverage AI functionality without building models from scratch.
  12. Amazon SageMaker: Amazon SageMaker is a fully managed service by Amazon Web Services (AWS) designed to simplify the development and deployment of machine learning models. It provides a complete set of tools for building, training, and deploying models at scale. SageMaker offers a wide range of algorithms, supports popular frameworks like TensorFlow and PyTorch, and includes capabilities for data preprocessing, model optimization, and model hosting.
  13. Google Cloud AI Platform: Google Cloud AI Platform is a set of cloud-based tools and services offered by Google Cloud for developing, training, and deploying machine learning models. It provides infrastructure, libraries, and frameworks to streamline the development process. Google Cloud AI Platform supports TensorFlow, PyTorch, and other popular frameworks, and offers features for distributed training, hyperparameter tuning, and model serving.

Bridging the skill gap

To successfully bridge the skill gap that exists within the software development industry, software developers themselves must realize that their skill sets will have to change.

According to a report from job search site Indeed, the three most in-demand AI jobs on the market are data scientist, software engineer, and machine learning engineer. The demand for these and other AI-related roles has more than doubled over the past three years, and it’s expected to keep growing at a similar pace.

The skills that software developers need to be proficient on AI projects include math, algebra, calculus, statistics, big data, data mining, data science, machine learning, MLOps, cognitive computing, text analytics, natural language processing, R, Hadoop, Spark, and many others.

Crucial skills for software developers in the age of AI

In the age of AI, developers can enhance their skills to stay relevant and take advantage of the opportunities presented by AI. Here are some crucial skills for developers in the AI era:

Machine Learning (ML) and Data Science

Understanding the principles and techniques of machine learning is essential. Developers should learn about different ML algorithms, data preprocessing, feature engineering, model evaluation, and deployment. Additionally, gaining knowledge in data science, including data visualization, exploratory data analysis, and statistical analysis, can provide a solid foundation for working with AI systems.

Neural Networks and Deep Learning

Deep learning has revolutionized AI and is widely used in various applications. Developers should familiarize themselves with neural networks, including convolutional neural networks (CNNs) for image processing and recurrent neural networks (RNNs) for sequence data. Learning frameworks like TensorFlow and PyTorch can be valuable in building and training deep learning models.

Natural Language Processing (NLP)

NLP focuses on understanding and processing human language. Developers can learn about techniques such as text preprocessing, sentiment analysis, named entity recognition, and language generation. Knowledge of libraries like NLTK, spaCy, and transformers can be beneficial in working with NLP tasks.

Data engineering and data management

Working with AI often involves handling large datasets. Developers should learn about data engineering techniques, data preprocessing, and data cleaning to ensure data quality. Additionally, understanding databases, distributed computing frameworks like Apache Hadoop and Apache Spark, and cloud-based data services can be valuable in managing and processing data for AI applications.

Software development practices and tools

While AI skills are crucial, developers should not overlook core software development practices. Strong programming skills, software design principles, and knowledge of popular programming languages like Python, Java, or C++ are still essential. Additionally, familiarity with version control systems (e.g., Git), collaborative development tools, and software testing methodologies is important.

Ethical and responsible AI

As AI becomes increasingly integrated into society, ethical considerations are vital. Developers should understand the ethical implications of AI, such as fairness, transparency, privacy, and bias. They should strive to develop AI systems that adhere to ethical guidelines and mitigate potential risks.

Domain knowledge and problem-solving

AI is applied in various domains, such as healthcare, finance, robotics, and autonomous systems. Developers should acquire domain-specific knowledge to understand the challenges, requirements, and constraints of specific industries. Strong problem-solving skills, critical thinking, and the ability to break down complex problems into manageable components are crucial in designing effective AI solutions.

Technical debt management

Developers need to know how to cope with various types of a growing technical debt. Managing technical debt is essential for ensuring that the software can grow and evolve without significant rework. Software engineers must balance the immediate benefits of quick fixes against the long-term impacts on productivity.

Skills needed are, for example, technical debt prioritization, technical debt metrics, coping with technical debt taking business goals into account.

Lifelong learning and adaptability

The field of AI is evolving rapidly, so developers must embrace lifelong learning. They should stay updated with the latest research, techniques, and advancements in AI. Keeping up with online courses, attending conferences, participating in AI communities, and exploring open-source projects can help developers stay ahead in this dynamic field.

By acquiring these skills, developers can position themselves to leverage the power of AI and contribute effectively to the development of AI-driven solutions across various industries.

Clearly, it would be virtually impossible for most software developers to master each and every AI-related skill, especially considering the breakneck speed at which the field of AI is moving forward. That’s why software developers who want to stay relevant in the age of AI should see themselves as expert-generalists and treat learning new skills as an ongoing process.

Having a breadth of knowledge makes it far easier to acquire deep expertise in one particular area based on the current market demand. “[Those who will be successful will be the developers that have the best understanding [of] the essential complexity of their domains: which data are important [and] the impact of uncertainty on decision making, etc.,” says Todd Schiller, head of engineering at MOKA, a disruptive technologies advisory firm.

Software developers won’t have to know the intricate details of the latest machine learning algorithms or possess excellent command of the trendiest programming language to work on AI projects, but not being able to navigate the AI landscape and learn new skills at the speed of business won’t be equally optional.

Will software engineers be still needed in the future?

While artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to automate certain tasks and impact various industries, it is unlikely that software engineers will be entirely replaced by AI in the foreseeable future. Here's why:

Complex problem-solving

Software engineering involves solving complex problems, designing algorithms, and developing intricate software systems. While AI can assist in automating certain repetitive tasks and optimizing processes, it still requires human expertise to conceptualize, architect, and design complex software solutions that meet specific requirements.

Creativity and innovation

Software engineering often involves creativity and innovation, such as designing user interfaces, creating unique user experiences, and developing novel algorithms. While AI can generate solutions based on existing patterns and data, it currently lacks the ability to match human creativity and intuition.

Ethical considerations

Software engineers are responsible for ensuring that the software they develop adheres to ethical standards, respects privacy, and mitigates biases. These ethical considerations require human judgment and decision-making, as AI systems can inadvertently perpetuate biases or act in ways that are not aligned with human values. Software engineers play a crucial role in ensuring ethical practices are followed throughout the software development process.

Adaptability and context understanding

Software engineers possess contextual understanding and the ability to adapt to changing requirements. They work closely with stakeholders to gather requirements, understand business needs, and create software solutions that align with specific contexts. While AI can assist in data analysis and pattern recognition, human software engineers are better equipped to understand complex contexts, make informed decisions, and adapt software systems accordingly.

Collaboration and communication

Software engineering often involves collaboration with cross-functional teams, clients, and end-users. Effective communication, teamwork, and understanding the needs of various stakeholders are essential for successful software development. Human software engineers bring interpersonal skills and domain expertise that are vital for these collaborative efforts.

While AI will continue to impact the field of software engineering, it is more likely to augment the work of software engineers rather than replace them entirely. AI can assist in automating repetitive tasks, optimizing code, and aiding in specific aspects of software development. However, the skills and expertise of software engineers will remain crucial for designing complex systems, ensuring quality, addressing ethical considerations, and driving innovation in the field.

What's coming up

While some software developers have resigned to their fate, most want to know how exactly AI will change software development so they can start acquiring relevant new skills as soon as possible.

“A large portion of programmers of tomorrow do not maintain complex software repositories, write intricate programs, or analyze their running times,” believes Andrej Karpathy, a former research scientist at OpenAI who now serves as Director of AI at Tesla. “They collect, clean, manipulate, label, analyze and visualize data that feeds neural networks.”

Karpathy has proposed a new software development process for the age of AI, called Software 2.0, and its key components include problem and goal definition, data collection, data preparation, model learning, model deployment and integration, and model management. Software developers of the future will source and compose large data sets to train applications to be smart, instead of hard-coding the desired capabilities.

Solutions such as DeepCoder, which was built by Microsoft and academics at the University of Cambridge, already allow us to see a glimpse of the future of software development. DeepCoder can create a new application by predicting which properties the application must have to generate some desired outputs from inputs.

While Microsoft’s solution is highly experimental, Ubisoft’s Commit Assistant AI, which was developed in partnership with a Concordia University researcher, has already been used on the Rainbow Six and Assassin’s Creed games, two major Ubisoft franchises. Commit Assistant AI automatically identifies coding defects as programmers write them, saving developers about 20 percent of their time.

“It touches all software developers. I believe that in the future we will be deploying more and more AI technologies to reduce the maintenance burden in software industries,” says Concordia University researcher Wahab Hamou-Lhadj.

Artificial intelligence will radically reshape software development and force software developers to acquire new skills in order to stay relevant. Those who will adapt most successfully to the coming era will get to enjoy an abundance of work opportunities, but the process will require a different mindset than many software developers have today.

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Marcin Dryka
Software Engineer

Full-stack software developer with 17 years of professional experience.

Bianka Pluszczewska
Tech Editor

Software development enthusiast with 8 years of professional experience in this industry.

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