A.I. and the new deskilling wave


I have an essay in tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal in which I examine how an overdependence on software is sapping the talents of professionals and argue for a more humanistic approach to programming and automation. The piece begins:

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. …

Read on.

Image by aneequs.

10 thoughts on “A.I. and the new deskilling wave

  1. alan

    Good article (if not a little too optimistic) – I would just mention the role of corporations to maximize profits in preference to ….. well, almost anything that benefits society in general.

    In fact, once the USA coerces the rest of the world to accept its repellant trade agreement (TTP) and its corporate sovereignty clause it will be impossible to do anything for the common good – maximizing profits will be the only permissible goal.

  2. Andrew Francis

    On Human Centered Automation: I am a bit surprised that ‘The Glass Cage’ or the Roughtype essays have not mentioned computer visionary Douglas Engelbart. Perhaps Engelbart is most famous for the invention of the computer mouse. I think folks like Douglas Engelbart and later, Alan Kay are big proponents of a human-oriented approach to software design. Concerning his work on NLS (oN-Line-System) and Computer-Supported-Cooperative-Work (CSCW), one of Engelbart’s mantras was ‘Augmentation not Automation.’ I recall a passage from Working Together” that I think is very relevant:

    The bind we are in is that our society encourages and rewards progress in the technological and material sense and often ignores the human and social implications of that progress.

  3. Linux Guru

    What Nick is describing is the inevitable. If you live in the 1st World, and you make a living do what a computer can do better, faster or someone in a hut in India do cheaper you’re going to be out of a job. A few years ago Dan Pink wrote a book called “A Whole New Mind” in which he predicts that left brained tasks like the ones being automated will go offshore or to machines leaving leisure time for right-brained activities: creators, artists, empathizes, pattern recognizer and “meaning makers”. Pink is a Democrat, lawyer and former writer for Al Gore. With all that against him, he still puts for a compelling argument. It turns out Nick is ahead of the curve – he the new right-brainier man.

  4. Nate

    Very well written article. Many of the comments on the WSJ site seem to be completely missing your point and make you out to be some kind of Neo-Luddite.

    I would love to hear your thoughts on how one can apply adaptive automation to provide meaningful work for those people without the intellectual ability to work in expert systems – not the doctor or pilot, but the payroll processor, fast-food cashier, janitor, or window cleaner. Have we automated people with median & lower IQs out of a meaningful life?

  5. Brian

    Human-centered Automation, Adaptive Automation. Interesting approaches.

    If automation can be an intellectual/spiritual existential threat on the order of nuclear annhilation as a physical threat, perhaps we need analogs to the Cold War arms control frameworks to prompt collaboration. In case this hasn’t yet been proposed:

    MAD = Machine-Assured De-Skilling
    SALT = Strategic AUTOMATION Limitation Talks
    START = Strategic AUTOMATION Reduction Treaty

    I already envision uncomfortable moments when Nick Carr has to decide in the car on the way over whether he will cheek-kiss Sergei Brin a la Carter/Brezhnev at the signing ceremony.

    Nick, firm handshake will suffice. I want a souvenir signing pen, though.

    And yes, this new Detente should bring with it the return of Cold War-Level rock music quality.

  6. Linux Guru

    Rainman(symbolic AI) never felt the loss of a loved one and wrote a poem that echos through the ages.

  7. Dara

    I had a lucky escape 6 months ago when I switched out of cruise control in my car and almost hit the car in front of me on the motorway. I had been coasting along at 120kph for the guts of 40 minutes without having to slow down and when I had to, I found that I had temporarily forgotten how to drive. I’ve stopped using cruise control since then.

  8. yvesT

    AI is more the vulgar version of the messianic myth.
    And Heidegger is for sure way ahead of Nich as to analyzing what technology is all about…

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