Are Computers Taking Over Our Human Intelligence?

Computers are taking over the kinds of knowledge work long considered the preserve of well-educated, well-trained professionals. (LUCI GUTIÉRREZ)
Computers are taking over the kinds of knowledge work long considered the preserve of well-educated, well-trained professionals. (LUCI GUTIÉRREZ)

Human intelligence is withering as computers do more, but there’s a solution.

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.

It has been a slow process. The first wave of automation rolled through U.S. industry after World War II, when manufacturers began installing electronically controlled equipment in their plants. The new machines made factories more efficient and companies more profitable. They were also heralded as emancipators. By relieving factory hands of routine chores, they would do more than boost productivity. They would elevate laborers, giving them more invigorating jobs and more valuable talents. The new technology would be ennobling.

Then, in the 1950s, a Harvard Business School professor named James Bright went into the field to study automation’s actual effects on a variety of industries, from heavy manufacturing to oil refining to bread baking. Factory conditions, he discovered, were anything but uplifting. More often than not, the new machines were leaving workers with drabber, less demanding jobs. An automated milling machine, for example, didn’t transform the metalworker into a more creative artisan; it turned him into a pusher of buttons.

Bright concluded that the overriding effect of automation was (in the jargon of labor economists) to “de-skill” workers rather than to “up-skill” them. “The lesson should be increasingly clear,” he wrote in 1966. “Highly complex equipment” did not require “skilled operators. The ‘skill’ can be built into the machine.”

We are learning that lesson again today on a much broader scale. As software has become capable of analysis and decision-making, automation has leapt out of the factory and into the white-collar world. Computers are taking over the kinds of knowledge work long considered the preserve of well-educated, well-trained professionals: Pilots rely on computers to fly planes; doctors consult them in diagnosing ailments; architects use them to design buildings. Automation’s new wave is hitting just about everyone.

Computers aren’t taking away all the jobs done by talented people. But computers are changing the way the work gets done. And the evidence is mounting that the same de-skilling effect that ate into the talents of factory workers last century is starting to gnaw away at professional skills, even highly specialized ones. Yesterday’s machine operators are today’s computer operators.

Just look skyward. Since their invention a century ago, autopilots have helped to make air travel safer and more efficient. That happy trend continued with the introduction of computerized “fly-by-wire” jets in the 1970s. But now, aviation experts worry that we’ve gone too far. We have shifted so many cockpit tasks from humans to computers that pilots are losing their edge—and beginning to exhibit what the British aviation researcher Matthew Ebbatson calls “skill fade.”

In 2007, while working on his doctoral thesis at Cranfield University’s School of Engineering, Mr. Ebbatson conducted an experiment with a group of airline pilots. He had them perform a difficult maneuver in a flight simulator—bringing a Boeing jet with a crippled engine in for a landing in rough weather—and measured subtle indicators of their skill, such as the precision with which they maintained the plane’s airspeed.

When he compared the simulator readings with the aviators’ actual flight records, he found a close connection between a pilot’s adroitness at the controls and the amount of time the pilot had recently spent flying planes manually. “Flying skills decay quite rapidly towards the fringes of ‘tolerable’ performance without relatively frequent practice,” Mr. Ebbatson concluded. But computers now handle most flight operations between takeoff and touchdown—so “frequent practice” is exactly what pilots are not getting.

Even a slight decay in manual flying ability can risk tragedy. A rusty pilot is more likely to make a mistake in an emergency. Automation-related pilot errors have been implicated in several recent air disasters, including the 2009 crashes of Continental Flight 3407 in Buffalo and Air France Flight 447 in the Atlantic Ocean, and the botched landing of Asiana Flight 214 in San Francisco in 2013.

Late last year, a report from a Federal Aviation Administration task force on cockpit technology documented a growing link between crashes and an overreliance on automation. Pilots have become “accustomed to watching things happen, and reacting, instead of being proactive,” the panel warned. The FAA is now urging airlines to get pilots to spend more time flying by hand.

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.

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SOURCE: The Wall Street Journal
Nicholas Carr

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