Resisting the De-skilling of Automation

Artificial intelligence or computer automation entered the workforce shortly after the end of World War II. This new technology was seen as a boon to the productivity of everyone from factory workers to bakers. Not only would businesses run more efficiently but workers would have more invigorating jobs that would increase their creativity. In the 1950s, James Bright, a Harvard Business Professor visited newly automated workplaces and found these assumptions to be anything but true. In fact most workers now had jobs that were less demanding and drab making them mere button pushers. This led Mr. Bright to conclude that highly skilled machinery did not require skilled operators and this was de-skilling the labor pool. Today computers have become a mainstay in the white-collar job world with software doing analysis and making decisions thus we are now witnessing the de-skilling of professionals. What does this mean?

It means people lose their creativity, mistakes become more common place and the ability to make decisions quickly is lost. You might believe this is having more of an effect on those in fields like accounting, secretarial work or data entry but it is also seen eroding skills in pilots, doctors, architects and other professionals. Planes fly themselves now with pilots sitting mesmerized watching dials and readouts. As long ago as 2007, testing showed this automation dulled the adroitness of pilots when they were asked to fly without automation in flight simulators and many in the industry link this loss of manual skills to de-skilled pilots not being able to react quickly in emergency situations. In fact many of the crashes from 2009 forward have been linked to automation-related pilot errors. Computer driven medical records are also affecting the diagnostic capabilities of physicians. Studies have found that a doctor entering data in an automated exam system is less likely to engage with a patient and learn family history and lifestyle choices, which could easily effect a diagnosis. The most recent example of this was the case of Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person to die of Ebola in the U.S. Automated systems are being blamed for dulling the ability of the medical staff to think beyond what their computer diagnostic system was telling them and realize they needed to ask more questions and think beyond the screen. Creative trades are being affected as well. The advent of computer-aided design gives architects the ability to design sophisticated buildings out of unusual materials but the ability to discern what is aesthetically pleasing to our senses is being lost. Juhani Pallasmaa, a Finnish architect, states that we now have precision but design is sterile and Nigel Cross, a professor of architecture in the U.K.,  states that when computers take over manual skills wane.

How are we to keep our mental edge and still use computers to assist us. One possibility is computer-centered automation, which always keeps the talents of humans in play. These systems keep the human engaged by not systematically going forward until feedback is received and human decisions are input. In this way people are attentive and engaged and skills are actually increased. Human-centered automation does not constrain progress but serves as an aid to those using it by proposing alternative interpretations and or choices to engage the decision-making process. One approach is adaptive automation, which uses sensors and interpretive algorithms to monitor the mental and physical states of the user. In this way the computer senses when the user is struggling and needs more aid with tasks and when the user is distracted and needs to be more engaged and work on skill building. People develop expertise by experience; meaning to stay sharp we need to practice decision-making skills and not shy away from challenging situations. In essence we as people can decide if we wish to stay adroit and mentally active or if we wish to live in an automated world more fit for robots than humans.

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