Automation and the decay of talent


The new wave of computer automation has provoked much concern and debate about job losses and the future of employment. Less discussed has been the way the computer is shaping the way people work and act, both on the job and in their personal lives. As the computer becomes a universal tool for getting things done, what happens to the diverse talents that people used to develop by engaging directly with the world in all its intricacy and complexity? In “The Great Forgetting,” an essay in the new issue of The Atlantic (the online version of the article bears the title “All Can Be Lost”), I look at some of the unexpected consequences of computer automation, particularly the way that software, as currently designed, tends to steal from us the opportunity to develop rich, distinctive, and hard-earned skills. Psychologists, human-factors experts, and other researchers are discovering that the price we pay for the ease and convenience of automation is a narrowing of human possibility.

Here’s an excerpt:

Psychologists have found that when we work with computers, we often fall victim to two cognitive ailments — complacency and bias — that can undercut our performance and lead to mistakes. Automation complacency occurs when a computer lulls us into a false sense of security. Confident that the machine will work flawlessly and handle any problem that crops up, we allow our attention to drift. We become disengaged from our work, and our awareness of what’s going on around us fades. Automation bias occurs when we place too much faith in the accuracy of the information coming through our monitors. Our trust in the software becomes so strong that we ignore or discount other information sources, including our own eyes and ears. When a computer provides incorrect or insufficient data, we remain oblivious to the error.

Examples of complacency and bias have been well documented in high-risk situations — on flight decks and battlefields, in factory control rooms — but recent studies suggest that the problems can bedevil anyone working with a computer. Many radiologists today use analytical software to highlight suspicious areas on mammograms. Usually, the highlights aid in the discovery of disease. But they can also have the opposite effect. Biased by the software’s suggestions, radiologists may give cursory attention to the areas of an image that haven’t been highlighted, sometimes overlooking an early-stage tumor. Most of us have experienced complacency when at a computer. In using e-mail or word-processing software, we become less proficient proofreaders when we know that a spell-checker is at work.

The way computers can weaken awareness and attentiveness points to a deeper problem. 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.

Whether it’s Serena Williams on a tennis court or Magnus Carlsen at a chessboard, an expert can spot patterns, evaluate signals, and react to changing circumstances with speed and precision that can seem uncanny. What looks like instinct is hard-won skill, skill that requires exactly the kind of struggle that modern software seeks to alleviate.

This is one of the themes that I’ll be exploring in my next book, The Glass Cage: Automation and Us.

Photo: NASA.

2 thoughts on “Automation and the decay of talent

  1. Cindy Wolff

    The move from acting to observing that inhibits “the development of expertise” is another way for everyone to be labeled an expert–no need to focus and specialize, everyone and anyone can do anything. It also eliminates the experience criteria out of any job requirement.

  2. Born6'5


    Once again I will be commenting on your blog this week.

    I find the topic of this post very interesting and can think of several references when reading it. The first, and probably the most basic is the reference to the animated film, WALL-E. Although this may seem like a childish reference I seem to think that it has quite the message in the story line. Wall-E is a robot that was left on earth by the humans. Humans had to leave because the earth was just not inhabitable anymore. The humans left in a ship and because of the amount of technology that was on that ship the only thing humans ever needed to do was lift a finger. Technology told them when to eat, sleep, use the restroom and everything else a human does in our daily lives. Everyone was extremely obese and only knew how to work their technology, and nothing else. All of the physical labor jobs were gone. Specialty jobs like carpenters and mechanics were not longer needed because machines were fixing other machines. It is said that the only job thats going to be needed in the future is the person that knows how to fix the machine that fixes the machines.
    The spell check reference was one I could relate as a college student as well. At times I find myself not catching simple spelling errors because I am putting more faith into my computer then I am in myself. I don’t believe I am the only one that does this in a time of so many new technologies. I truly understand that we are gong to start putting much more responsibility into our machines but is this the right thing to do. Where will we be in 3005? Will people still be asking a plumber to come fix a leak? Will anyone still have these skills?

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