Today, more and more jobs are aided by computers.  One could be forgiven for wondering why the world’s shrinking workforce (due to shrinking fertility rates) is a problem at all.  Could we not just bring in more computers and more automation to perform the jobs of the many workers we rely on for goods and services?  Only this week, New Zealand’s new leader of the opposition, Andrew Little, pledged a commission to look at the future of work and prepare for the impact of automation and technology on jobs and job security.  It is not only factories that now use automated systems, but architects, pilots, doctors and other such highly educated professionals. 

An interesting critique in The Wall Street Journal of the effects of widespread automation on the human brain and on the quality of work being done in numerous increasingly automated industries suggests over-reliance on machines isn’t a wise or tenable idea.  Humans still need to be at the centre of any process also involving artificial intelligence for effective work to take place – and for human dignity and creativity to be upheld.  Author of the article, Nicholas Carr, comments:

Computers aren’t taking away all the jobs done by talented people. But computers are changing the way the work gets done. And the evidence is mounting that the same de-skilling effect that ate into the talents of factory workers last century is starting to gnaw away at professional skills, even highly specialized ones. Yesterday’s machine operators are today’s computer operators.

Just look skyward. Since their invention a century ago, autopilots have helped to make air travel safer and more efficient… But now, aviation experts worry that we’ve gone too far. We have shifted so many cockpit tasks from humans to computers that pilots are losing their edge—and beginning to exhibit what the British aviation researcher Matthew Ebbatson calls “skill fade.”

It is argued that too much automation and reliance on a computer results in professionals that often forget to think holistically, taking into account the huge range of factors influencing any given situation that only an actual human can.  Instead, they develop a sort of tunnel vision based on prompts given by a machine incapable of intuition.  The article mentions this study:

Ten years ago, information scientists at Utrecht University in the Netherlands had a group of people carry out complicated analytical and planning tasks using either rudimentary software that provided no assistance or sophisticated software that offered a great deal of aid. The researchers found that the people using the simple software developed better strategies, made fewer mistakes and developed a deeper aptitude for the work. The people using the more advanced software, meanwhile, would often “aimlessly click around” when confronted with a tricky problem. The supposedly helpful software actually short-circuited their thinking and learning.

It is not suggested that we disregard all the help we get from automation altogether, but instead develop a “human-centred automation”.  Such an approach still regards humans as infinitely more capable than machines and their judgment much more worthy of notice.  An example might be that a plane switches between pilot and automated control, meaning pilots must remain alert to everything going on and are constantly utilising and practicing their flying skills.

While computers do help us an awful lot in a huge range of fields, we need our doctors to apply their medical knowledge to us as subtly unique individuals. We need our architects to understand the humans that will live in the buildings they design, and our pilots to definitely know every facet of how to fly the planes we fly in when we put our lives in their hands. A mindless robot, can never take the place of a human whose immense brain power can still not be fully understood by scientists.  And we definitely wouldn’t want to dumb our brain power down or suppress our infinitely creative abilities.  

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...