Will PTC consider using AI in Mathcad?

Why using AI in Mathcad Prime to recognize handwritten numbers and equations is a bad idea.

When Engineering.com asked for more details on this significant release, Andrew McGough, product management director at PTC, regaled us with Mathcad’s new ability to add slider controls to input fields and handle esoteric functions, such as Big O notation. He also discussed using script to modify input fields, how to solve partial differential equations better and new choices for solving pdesolve, odesolve,numol, genfit, polyroots, find, minimize, maximize and minerr functions. Such mastery of math at its highest level has been recorded here.

Still, we wondered if Mathcad would one day sympathize with the engineer’s everyday struggle of coaxing equations out of a keyboard. Many engineers work without numeric keypads and no keyboard has more than four arithmetic functions. We asked McGough: Why can’t Mathcad recognize handwritten equations? Why can’t Mathcad do for math what AI has done for text — recognize and process input more naturally?

“There’s a lot of opportunity with AI, and we must approach it cautiously,” he said. “We have to use the technology in the right way. With math, if there’s any risk of something misinterpreting handwriting, especially when defining math … that’s problematic.”

McGough gave an example of a bug that misinterpreted one number for another and caused havoc.

Andrew McGough, product management director at PTC.

“It’s not like that with words because you can still understand a sentence with a wrong word,” he said. “Your mind understands the context and gets the meaning. But let’s say you are writing an equation; you want to make sure AI is precise enough to recognize each and every number. Getting a number wrong can drastically change the outcome. That’s an area that needs a lot of investigation.”

On the subject of keyboards being less-than-ideal for entering engineering calculations, McGough agrees — and disagrees. He agrees that Mathcad would be valuable as an equation editor and for higher education. But his faith in the keyboard is strong.

“All the feedback we get on keyboard shortcuts is that users want more of them, so we need to make sure we have keyboard shortcuts for everything,” said McGough. “When you start writing math in a worksheet, you don’t want to move to the mouse. You don’t want to go to the UI. You want to type. We have something like 120 keyboard shortcuts for as many mathematical operations. We’ve reached the point where you can construct a Mathcad worksheet without going to the UI.”

For engineers who need to include equations in Word documents for reports, McGough suggests exporting Mathcad worksheets as an RTF file, as Mathcad does not output to Word. In cases where an RTF file output differs significantly from a report’s formatting requirements, we think it may be easier to rewrite the equations in native Word format than change their properties. And, of course, an equation in RTF would be unable to do actual calculations.

The answer to why Mathcad cannot work on iPhones and iPads makes some sense. Like most CAD and CAE companies, PTC has chosen Windows as its operating system. While it might be nice to have Mathcad on an iPad, engineers typically don’t favor Apple devices. Instead, McGough said users like the big Windows screens on their PCs and workstations for their Mathcad worksheets.

“We get a little feedback from people wanting to use it on different platforms,” said McGough. “It’s certainly a customer desire that I have listened to. We all carry our phones and want everything to work on them. But some things don’t fit that format.”

However, he said a calculator would work in that format. On that, we agree. An iPhone user has a choice of several calculators. We have tested many, including a few with RPN (reverse Polish notation). Old-school engineers may prefer RPN from their university days when they hung their HP calculator on their belts.

But even the most powerful programmable, graphing calculator is no match for Mathcad.