Automation is Making Us Dumber…and That’s a Good Thing

What a strange practice it is…that a man should sit down to his breakfast table and, instead of conversing with his wife, and children, hold before his face a sort of screen on which is inscribed a world-wide gossip.”

If I attributed the above quote to my dad, if I said he was talking about smart phones, you’d believe me. And if your dad is anything like mine, he’s probably said similar things too…just maybe less like an old-timey newsman. And what’s more, the quote actually sounds like something his dad might have said , except his dad would have been talking about the TV, not iPads (and actually would have sounded more like an old-timey newsman).

But in reality, the reason it reads like something straight out of the 1900’s is because that’s when Charles Cooley, a renowned American sociologist wrote it — in 1909. About newspapers.

via Let’s Know Things

Young people grow up with new technologies, integrate them into the fabric of everyday life, and take them for granted. Older people, who struggle to keep up with the rapidly changing times, complain that things were better back in their day.

The older we get, the more we fear change, the more we romanticize the past.

This pattern is not new. It’s not unique to our time. There are records that date back to 400 BC in which Socrates complains that it was better back in his day, before everyone started learning how to write:

“…this discovery of yours [writing] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.”

Socrates feared that we would come to rely too heavily on the written word and, as a result, our memorization skills would fade.

His fears weren’t unfounded — we have lost a degree of our mental acuity. And in recent years, it’s gotten worse. With Google, we’ve eliminated the need to memorize simple facts like names, dates, or basic equations. What good is memorizing the Pythagorean Theorem or the dates of the Civil War when that information is never more than a keystroke away?

Of course, now, no one complains about the evils of writing. As time marches forward, so do we. We abandon old debates and find new things to complain about.In another 50 years, our current arguments about smart phones and social media will seem just as funny as arguments about the dangers of newspapers and writing do today.

Automation, the Next Worst Thing Ever

As technological progression accelerates, we have to get over our current complaints and make room for the “next worst thing” faster than we ever have before. And if you missed the memo, the new thing to hate is automation — it’s making us dumber…and apparently, that’s a bad thing.

Automation truly took off following World War II; manufacturers began installing electronic equipment in their factories in an effort to increase efficiency. Factory workers became button pushers, and eventually we created machines that would push those buttons themselves, allowing us to eliminate the human element entirely.

Now, we’re seeing this same pattern play out again in white collar work. As software becomes increasingly intelligent, we’re slowly replacing doctors, truck drivers, pilots and even architects with their robot counterparts. And in the process, we’ve seen Socrates’ old debate resurface, except this time, it’s about robots and “skill fade (a term from researcher Matthew Ebbatson).

The argument goes like this:

“As software improves, the people using it become less likely to sharpen their own know-how. Applications that offer lots of prompts and tips are often to blame; simpler, less solicitous programs push people harder to think, act and learn.” — Nicholas Carr, WSJ

In his article, Automation is Making Us Dumb, Carr offers airline pilots as a prime example. As they’ve come to rely increasingly on autopilot, they’ve lost some degree of skill when it comes to actually flying the plane. If there’s an emergency, or if they have to suspend automation, they’re more prone to mistakes and unnecessary errors that their counterparts from 50 years ago would have been prepared for.

The FAA’s response to these findings are to mandate that pilots get more flight time.

In the short term, that’s a reasonable response. If you’re the passenger on a flight from New York to Los Angeles tomorrow, you certainly hope your pilot knows how to do his job and…you know…fly the plane. But over the long term, this response runs counter to what we should (and will) be doing — creating more sophisticated AI that will eliminate the need for human pilots entirely.

As we’ve seen in the driverless car debates, humans make a lot of mistakes. They get distracted. They panic. They forget things. They drink and drive. They fall asleep behind the wheel. And pilots are no different. The solution isn’t to improve humanity’s batting average with additional training — the answer is to create a better machine. Robots, while not error-free, don’t get drunk, sleepy, or feel the need to read text messages behind the wheel. And if robots are flying the plane, that’s one more person who can read Sky Mall 30,000 feet up. Everyone wins.

2500 Years of the Same Debate

Carr, Ebbatson, and co. aren’t wrong. Automation is making us dumber. We’re losing skills we once had. We’re not as good at flying planes, remembering dates, or talking on the phone.

But it’s no different than Socrates’ 2500 year old luddite argument — writing is making us worse at memorization. The only difference is that over the last 2500 years, we’ve come around on writing. We’ve collectively agreed that writing has been a net positive — we’ve used it to produce countless literary masterpieces, we’re able to communicate more efficiently, and you’re able to read my rants anywhere in the world!

Eventually, we’ll come around on automation and texting too. Because what’s valuable to one generation is not necessarily valuable to future generations.

We’ve always been sacrificing our skills to the altar of new technology. In 10,000 BC, we became worse at hunting because we discovered agriculture. In 1917, we became worse at hand-washing clothes, because the washing machine took over. We’ve all made peace with all that.

Why? Because when machines wash our clothes, when only 3% of the population can sustain an entire country with their crops, the rest of us have the time to pursue our own passions. When we don’t spend every waking minute trying to find our next meal or a safe place to sleep, we have the freedom to be creative. Like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the less we have to worry about, the better (and more creative, and more fulfilling) our lives will be.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

“Skill fade” is real. Automation is making us dumber. But it’s only bad if you want to see it that way — if you want to focus on the extreme short term.

Over the course of history, technological developments that save us time, effort, energy, and brain power make humanity better off. Automation removes the need to sit on an assembly line and tighten bolts all day. Sure, the bolt-tightener loses his job ( ? ), but the next generation of would-be bolt-tighteners go on to have more creative, more fulfilling jobs, and as a result, better lives.

In the next 10 years, a lot of jobs are going to be replaced by machines. Some skills will fade into obscurity. We’ll whine and complain and stomp our feet and say, “things were better back in the day.” And then we’ll all move on to complaining about the next thing…because like it or not, that’s one of humanity’s greatest skills, and it will never fade.


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