The Other Side of Automation

  • February 4, 2014
  • Scott

Good discussion on regarding the limits of Automation.  Unfortunately it took the predictable detour into the topic of how automation is dehumanizing or bad for us – and of course it can be when the human is reduced to a cog in the machine a la the industrial revolution.  The starting quote from Keith Swenson’s blog set the tone, though the overall piece it is quoted from is rather optimistic about what automation means for us as humans:

“Automation turns us from actors into observers. Instead of manipulating the yoke, we watch the screen.  That shift may make our lives easier, but it can also inhibit the development of expertise.”

There are lots of examples of how Automation has altered the way we live and work.  Automation has made many of us less skilled at gear-shifting manual transmissions, but perhaps more skilled at a higher level function (driving), despite many manual drivers’ protestations!  While automation might reduce the value of knowledge, it increases the value of search.  The need to know off the top of your head may be a bit less, but the expertise to search for that information efficiently will be well-developed.

I don’t worry about how the brain might atrophy as a result of automation making the job easier. It just means that we’ll fill the space with more interesting and challenging (and rewarding!) work.

In the main, the focus of the discussion is on automating work that a human would otherwise do.  There was very little discussion of automation performing work that a human was unlikely to ever do, thus enabling humans to do higher level actions.  The example I gave was flying a plane – imagine flying a jetliner without automation?

It is also a mistake to think that Automation only does things that we (humans) could do, but is repeatable and boring, for example. On an airplane, when the pilot moves the stick, all kinds of automation causes parts of the airplane to react in order to follow those instructions. I suppose you could argue we could fly planes the way we used to sail ships, the captain calling out an order, which is repeated down the line until someone moves the rope or sail… but in flight, that isn’t realistic 🙂

People focus too much on how automation limits and constrains, and not enough on how much it enables and frees us.

Bogdan Nafornita had a nice addition as well:

Automation’s (and technology’s in general) only purpose should be to enhance our own humanness.

We should delegate to machines everything that prevents us from doing profoundly human activities: loving, creating, inventing, learning, feeling, sensing.

This should be the framework that defines the limits of what should we automate.

If we’re just automating things that humans are good at, we’re probably over-investing in automation to no real purpose or improvement.  If we turn the question on its head, we can ask more interesting questions:

  • What more could we accomplish if we only had a little automation?
  • Are we automating the right things to improve our lives?


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