There is an interesting genre emerging today, as otherwise smart writers start to warn us that either (a) robots are going to take over the world or (b) computers are eroding human intelligence. If we believe these authors, our future is either serving our new robot overlords or mindlessly staring at screens throughout our lives. Nicholas Carr’s recent “Automation Makes Us Dumb” in the WSJ is a good example of this trend.

images-2In his essay, Carr lays out his warning early on:

Artificial intelligence has arrived. Today’s computers are discerning and sharp. They can sense the environment, untangle knotty problems, make subtle judgments and learn from experience. They don’t think the way we think—they’re still as mindless as toothpicks—but they can replicate many of our most prized intellectual talents. Dazzled by our brilliant new machines, we’ve been rushing to hand them all sorts of sophisticated jobs that we used to do ourselves.

But our growing reliance on computer automation may be exacting a high price. Worrisome evidence suggests that our own intelligence is withering as we become more dependent on the artificial variety. Rather than lifting us up, smart software seems to be dumbing us down.

Carr ignores the paradox that these great new machines that are supposedly making us dumber are being designed by ever-smarter scientists and engineers, which means that at best only some people are apparently getting dumber — at least until computers start designing themselves. Instead, he moves on to rehash the often-told story about pilots who don’t fly a lot having more accidents when they have to take control of a plane in tricky situations. I am sure that this is true, but it does not prove his point. Of course, any skill is that is rarely used will get rusty. That does not mean the pilots are any “dumber.” It just means that until the autopilot can handle 100% of situations, pilots need to keep their skills sharp just in case they are needed. The fact that Carr argues that this should happen means that he thinks the pilots are just as intelligent now, since he would, I’m sure, agree that training ever-dumber pilots would hardly solve the problem. Moreover, a 2000 paper by Asaf Degani (San Jose State University and NASA Ames Research) and Michael Heymann (Department of Computer Science Technion, Israel) concluded that the major issue with pilot-automation issues was not “rusty” pilots but flaws in the way pilots interact with the systems:

The naked truth is that current methods for designing and evaluating human-automation interactions are, in themselves, inadequate. Current methods, which consist of “what-if” questions, cognitive walk-through, simulations, and experimentation, are simply not systematic and rigorous enough to cover all possible pilot-automation interactions. This limitation is what lead to the design deficiency that we described in this paper. There is an urgent cry for better design and evaluation methods from avionics vendors, airframe manufacturers, and certification officials.

Carr also dislikes the idea of computers making diagnoses instead of doctors. Really? Does he realize that every year tens of thousands of people die from misdiagnosis and maybe one million are injured by medical errors? Even doctors admit that it’s impossible for them to keep up with new studies and procedures and that computers will make staying up to date much easier, making doctors smarter, not dumber, practitioners. I, for one, don’t care if a person or IBM’s Watson solves my medical puzzle — I just want it solved.

More interestingly, Carr makes the (not so new) proposition that automation is not just making technical people dumb, it’s also hurting “creative” types. His particular example is architecture:

When software takes over, manual skills wane. In his book “The Thinking Hand,” the Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa argues that overreliance on computers makes it harder for designers to appreciate the subtlest, most human qualities of their buildings. “The false precision and apparent finiteness of the computer image” narrow a designer’s perspective, he writes, which can mean technically stunning but emotionally sterile work. As University of Miami architecture professor Jacob Brillhart wrote in a 2011 paper, modern computer systems can translate sets of dimensions into precise 3-D renderings with incredible speed, but they also breed “more banal, lazy, and uneventful designs that are void of intellect, imagination and emotion.”

I reject this conclusion (and not just because of Bauhaus, which showed you don’t need automation to make souless architecture). The same tired complaints were made about synthesizers and drum machines in music when they emerged, and no one would seriously argue that musicians are dumber or less skilled today than they were forty years ago. The rise of automation in music and visual arts has not made these artists any “dumber.” What did happen is a temporary shift in abilities as musicians and visual artists learned to use their new tools in different ways. In the end, the same intelligence was redeployed in new media, forms and techniques — with intellect neither augmented nor diminished.

One interesting comment Carr does make is when he correctly notes the tension that arises between humans and machines as activities that were once completely human transition, in part or in whole, into the computerized realm:

The philosopher Hubert Dreyfus of the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in 2002 that human expertise develops through “experience in a variety of situations, all seen from the same perspective but requiring different tactical decisions.” In other words, our skills get sharper only through practice, when we use them regularly to overcome different sorts of difficult challenges.

The goal of modern software, by contrast, is to ease our way through such challenges. Arduous, painstaking work is exactly what programmers are most eager to automate—after all, that is where the immediate efficiency gains tend to lie. In other words, a fundamental tension ripples between the interests of the people doing the automation and the interests of the people doing the work.

He’s right. Skill is either gained or perfected through practice, and as automation takes away work, it diminishes some human skills even as it expands or even creates new ones. I don’t tune my piano any more — I spend my time playing it. I don’t fix my car any more — I spend my time driving it. I don’t save all my papers in files — I let me computer do it. Losing any of those old activities — which at one time required real skills — did not make me any less intelligent. In fact, they allowed me the time to read Carr’s piece and respond to it. I am sure the Human Genome Project, the Higgs Boson investigators at Fermilab, and, most recently, the Rosetta team at ESA would all agree. Having machines take over what humans no longer need to know is, to quote the german phrase, Vorsprung durch Technik: progress through technology. It’s a good thing, and it’s our future.

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Posted by Carlos Alvarenga

Carlos Alvarenga is the Executive Director of World 50 ThinkLabs and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Maryland's Smith School of Business.

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