You probably could have guessed that I’m a fan of integrating automation into daily routine. Call me old fashioned, but I feel like computers are supposed to work for human beings: Reduce the number of routine tasks in our lives, watch over things for us, and generally help us accomplish more stuff with less effort and with fewer errors.
But what if I’m wrong about all of that?
The latest New Yorker features an article called ‘The Hazards of Going on Autopilot’. In it, Maria Konnikova looks at the societal effects of automation by focusing on a sector which is on its leading edge – Aviation. While the dramatic perils of “getting it wrong” at altitude have driven the introduction of automation into the cockpit, the overall effect might actually be more dangerous than the risks these systems are intended to reduce.
Why? Simply put: Bored pilots. “I know I’m not in the loop“, said one quoted in the piece, “but I’m not exactly out of the loop. It’s more like I’m flying alongside the loop.” Stephen Casner, one of the researchers that Konnikova cites, has studied the effects of automation over many years and has come to the conclusion that it diminishes one’s ability to make complex cognitive decisions:
What we’re doing is using human beings as safety nets or backups to computers, and that’s completely backward,” Casner said. “It would be much better if the computing system watched us and chimed in when we do something wrong.” Ideally, he said, automation would adopt a human-centered approach—one that takes seriously our inability to sit and stare by alerting us when we need to be alerted rather than by outright replacing our routines with computerized ones. This kind of shift from passive observation to active monitoring would help to ensure that our minds remain stimulated. Casner likened the desired approach to one taken by good lifeguards. In the absence of a safety net, they must remain aware. “They don’t just sit and wait to see if someone’s screaming,” he said. “They scan the pool, look for certain signs.”
The whole article is a fascinating look at the hazards of automation and well-worth checking out.1.
- Don’t have your computer read this one to you, m’kay? [↩]