Sunday, November 17, 2013

A world on auto-pilot

Another quick one, while I have wi-fi - this excellent article from The Atlantic: All Can Be Lost: The Risk of Putting Our Knowledge in the Hands of Machines
Pilots today work inside what they call “glass cockpits.” The old analog dials and gauges are mostly gone. They’ve been replaced by banks of digital displays. Automation has become so sophisticated that on a typical passenger flight, a human pilot holds the controls for a grand total of just three minutes. What pilots spend a lot of time doing is monitoring screens and keying in data. They’ve become, it’s not much of an exaggeration to say, computer operators.

And that, many aviation and automation experts have concluded, is a problem. Overuse of automation erodes pilots’ expertise and dulls their reflexes, leading to what Jan Noyes, an ergonomics expert at Britain’s University of Bristol, terms “a de-skilling of the crew.” No one doubts that autopilot has contributed to improvements in flight safety over the years. It reduces pilot fatigue and provides advance warnings of problems, and it can keep a plane airborne should the crew become disabled. But the steady overall decline in plane crashes masks the recent arrival of “a spectacularly new type of accident,” says Raja Parasuraman, a psychology professor at George Mason University and a leading authority on automation. When an autopilot system fails, too many pilots, thrust abruptly into what has become a rare role, make mistakes. Rory Kay, a veteran United captain who has served as the top safety official of the Air Line Pilots Association, put the problem bluntly in a 2011 interview with the Associated Press: “We’re forgetting how to fly.”

Because automation alters how we act, how we learn, and what we know, it has an ethical dimension. The choices we make, or fail to make, about which tasks we hand off to machines shape our lives and the place we make for ourselves in the world. That has always been true, but in recent years, as the locus of labor-saving technology has shifted from machinery to software, automation has become ever more pervasive, even as its workings have become more hidden from us. Seeking convenience, speed, and efficiency, we rush to off-load work to computers without reflecting on what we might be sacrificing as a result.

A hundred years ago, the British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote, “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” It’s hard to imagine a more confident expression of faith in automation...History provides plenty of evidence to support Whitehead. We humans have been handing off chores, both physical and mental, to tools since the invention of the lever, the wheel, and the counting bead. But Whitehead’s observation should not be mistaken for a universal truth. He was writing when automation tended to be limited to distinct, well-defined, and repetitive tasks—weaving fabric with a steam loom, adding numbers with a mechanical calculator. Automation is different now. Rather than opening new frontiers of thought and action, software ends up narrowing our focus. We trade subtle, specialized talents for more routine, less distinctive ones.

Most of us want to believe that automation frees us to spend our time on higher pursuits but doesn’t otherwise alter the way we behave or think. That view is a fallacy—an expression of what scholars of automation call the “substitution myth.” A labor-saving device doesn’t just provide a substitute for some isolated component of a job or other activity. It alters the character of the entire task, including the roles, attitudes, and skills of the people taking part.

Automation turns us from actors into observers. That shift may make our lives easier, but it can also inhibit the development of expertise. Since the late 1970s, psychologists have been documenting a phenomenon called the “generation effect.” It was first observed in studies of vocabulary, which revealed that people remember words much better when they actively call them to mind—when they generate them—than when they simply read them. The effect, it has since become clear, influences learning in many different circumstances. When you engage actively in a task, you set off intricate mental processes that allow you to retain more knowledge. You learn more and remember more. When you repeat the same task over a long period, your brain constructs specialized neural circuits dedicated to the activity. It assembles a rich store of information and organizes that knowledge in a way that allows you to tap into it instantaneously.

The small island of Igloolik, off the coast of the Melville Peninsula in the Nunavut territory of northern Canada, is a bewildering place in the winter.... Despite the brutal conditions, Inuit hunters have for some 4,000 years ventured out from their homes on the island and traveled across miles of ice and tundra to search for game. The hunters’ ability to navigate vast stretches of the barren Arctic terrain, where landmarks are few, snow formations are in constant flux, and trails disappear overnight, has amazed explorers and scientists for centuries. The Inuit’s extraordinary way-finding skills are born not of technological prowess—they long eschewed maps and compasses—but of a profound understanding of winds, snowdrift patterns, animal behavior, stars, and tides.

Inuit culture is changing now. The Igloolik hunters have begun to rely on computer-generated maps to get around. ..But as GPS devices have proliferated on Igloolik, reports of serious accidents during hunts have spread. A hunter who hasn’t developed way-finding skills can easily become lost, particularly if his GPS receiver fails. The routes so meticulously plotted on satellite maps can also give hunters tunnel vision, leading them onto thin ice or into other hazards a skilled navigator would avoid. The anthropologist Claudio Aporta, of Carleton University in Ottawa, has been studying Inuit hunters for more than 15 years. He notes that while satellite navigation offers practical advantages, its adoption has already brought a deterioration in way-finding abilities and, more generally, a weakened feel for the land. An Inuit on a GPS-equipped snowmobile is not so different from a suburban commuter in a GPS-equipped SUV: as he devotes his attention to the instructions coming from the computer, he loses sight of his surroundings. He travels “blindfolded,” as Aporta puts it. A unique talent that has distinguished a people for centuries may evaporate in a generation.
Anecdotally, I've seen this up close, where old-timers lament that architects today no longer know how to hand-draft, and that losing this skill has had knock-on effects even in the world of computer CAD drafting. In fact, even computer drafting skills are becoming endangered now that we're modelling buildings in 3D for our documents. What happens if and when we no longer have that software available to us? Are we so sure we will never go backward? I'm consistently amazed whenever the network goes down at work that we're essentially reduced to standing around doing nothing.

And another story - one of the field engineers I'm working with is fairy inexperienced, and he relies on electronic CAD files in his TOTALstation to lay out the building. "He's not looking at the documents," lamented my project manager. This is an issue, as our documents are the records of what is to be built, not the electronic files, and information may be overlooked without reading the paper documents. He's been taught to rely on the computers in school and is using it as a crutch, whereas the "old timers" we've previously worked with know their way around a set of documents. It's another example of the skills we're losing, and, as in the Inuit example above, I think we're losing a fundamental portion of what it means to be human. We have so much potential that's being squandered, and I think people sense this.

You may recall a popular Archdruid Report post from last year which covered some of the same ground: The Revovery of the Human:
Frank Herbert’s classic SF novel Dune has one character explain this to another with commendable precision: "Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them." The same dynamic is present whenever people allow themselves to become dependent on machines, for reasons that follow from the points made last week.

It’s hard to think of anything that flies in the face of contemporary attitudes more comprehensively than the suggestion that human beings are more efficient than machines under any circumstances at all. Still, if you consider the whole system upon which each of the two depends, the superiority of the human is easy to see. Behind the machine—almost any machine in the modern industrial world—stands a sprawling infrastructure that depends on constant inputs of energy: not just energy in general, either, but very large quantities of cheap, concentrated energy fitting precise specifications. That energy powers the machine, to be sure, but it also manufactures it, keeps spare parts in stock, and powers and supplies the huge networks that make it possible for the machine to do what it does...Thus one of the greatest challenges ahead of us as the age of abundance ends is nothing less than the rediscovery of the possibilities of our own humanity. The work that needs to be done—and in an epoch of decline, there will be plenty of that—will have to be done with the capacities woven into the human body and mind, along with those additional capacities that can be developed in both by training and practice. The effort that nowadays gets poured into teaching people how to manipulate machines will need to be redirected into teaching them how to bring out the creative and productive capacities in themselves. That can’t be done effectively, please note, by trying to manipulate them like so many machines, or by teaching them to manipulate themselves in the same manner; I-It relationships do very poorly at directing human productive and creative powers. It will require instead the ability to understand human beings as human beings rather than inconveniently squishy bipedal machines, and the capacity to enter into I-Thou relationships, that has always defined good teachers and good leaders.

Less than a hundred years ago, the sort of awareness I’m suggesting here was a common response of people across the industrial world to the mechanization of everyday life, and less than forty years ago a revival of that same approach—the human potential movement of the Seventies—achieved a not inconsiderable success before it was stomped by the same backlash that flattened the industrial world’s last real attempt to turn aside from the mess it’s made for itself. The recognition that the potential within the individual human being is the industrial world’s most thoroughly wasted and neglected resource has surfaced at intervals straight through the history of industrialism, and been hurriedly swept back under the rug time and again. Go back to the origins of contemporary industrial society in the scientific revolution, in fact, and you can trace the same opposition in the tangled conflicts by which the first versions of modern science seized the cultural conversation of their time from the remnants of Renaissance humanism and set our civilization on the path to its current predicament.

There are immense issues involved in a recovery of the human, a refocusing of attention toward what human beings can do with their own innate possibilities and potentials for learning and away from the quest to replace as many human functions as possible by this season’s crop of computerized gimmickry.
But while Greer sees a rapid decline in our ability to outsource our capabilities to machines, I see nothing but full speed ahead and increasing automation on the near-term horizon. Eventually, we may lose those abilities, but how atrophied will our human skills be then? Yet at the same time, you see people pushing back the other way against this, whether physically by things like 100-mile ultramarathons, or mentally with the Art of Memory, Trachtenberg math and the Trivium.

I fear our mechanized view of the world is giving us a mechanized view of humanity, the idea that we're all nothing more than an amorphous mass of numbers to be manipulated at will. And that can't lead anywhere good.

Okay, I will!


  1. Hey don't you have a phone or tablet ?
    I'll miss your posts.

  2. Glad you popped back in for a bit. Checked randomly and found a pot o' gold. :)

  3. The automation of everything is a dead end. Literally. Why?
    Despite the shale-gas optimists, the Singulatarians, and other members of the Church of Cornucopia, the fact is that we live on a finite planet. The die-off or die-back hits just a minute after the metaphorical clock hits 59 minutes to midnight. We're there.

    Who is more likely to survive the crunch? Those who have been living a life of useless ease benefiting from automation, or those who out of sheer stubborn will had continued to do things by hand, or by dint of their own labor and skills?

    The answer is obvious.

    I admit the distinct likelihood that an elite core will continue to benefit from automation and high-tech, or at least die trying. But the majority will need to choose between dependence and poverty, or a dignified life in a traditional setting. I was just way up north, hunting, and was amazing at how much freer life is up there, where people hunt, fish, keep horses and livestock, and there are many subsistence farmers. And everyone helps each other, to a far greater degree than in the city. It was hard to come back south.

    I think those who dismiss the possibility of a collapse-like scenario with high-tech civilization are like what's his name on the Death Star, who refused to get into his escape pod at his "moment of triumph."

    Nature bats last, whatever human hubris may say.


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