Does software make you stupid?

Interesting article by Nicholas Carr at the Wall Street Journal this weekend, “Automation Makes Us Dumb.”  Carr wants to make the case that, like factory automation in the years after World War II, the increasing sophistication of software to help us do our jobs may be de-skilling even our smartest people.

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.

I’m not at all sure I buy the argument entirely. The “worrisome evidence” he cites is minimal. The first case involves airline pilots who rely too much on “fly-by-wire” software. If you’ve forgotten (or don’t know) how to fly a plane manually, tricky maneuvers that allow you to safely land in the Hudson River become more difficult when the moment requires it.

The second item is ripped from the headlines, about computerized health systems, and is a little worrisome:

English: Biosafety level 4 hazmat suit: resear...
Biosafety level 4 hazmat suit: researcher is working with the Ebola virus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a recent paper published in the journal Diagnosis, three medical researchers—including Hardeep Singh, director of the health policy, quality and informatics program at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Houston—examined the misdiagnosis of Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person to die of Ebola in the U.S., at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas. They argue that the digital templates used by the hospital’s clinicians to record patient information probably helped to induce a kind of tunnel vision. “These highly constrained tools,” the researchers write, “are optimized for data capture but at the expense of sacrificing their utility for appropriate triage and diagnosis, leading users to miss the forest for the trees.” Medical software, they write, is no “replacement for basic history-taking, examination skills, and critical thinking.”

Meta-learning lab meets with Doug Engelbart
Meta-learning lab meets with Doug Engelbart (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Where I agree with Carr almost completely is his solution, which sounds like one of my favorite hobby horses: Doug Engelbart‘s augmented computing, or what Carr calls “human centered automation.”

In “human-centered automation,” the talents of people take precedence. Systems are designed to keep the human operator in what engineers call “the decision loop”—the continuing process of action, feedback and judgment-making. That keeps workers attentive and engaged and promotes the kind of challenging practice that strengthens skills.

In this model, software plays an essential but secondary role. It takes over routine functions that a human operator has already mastered, issues alerts when unexpected situations arise, provides fresh information that expands the operator’s perspective and counters the biases that often distort human thinking. The technology becomes the expert’s partner, not the expert’s replacement.

Something tells me I’ll have to read his referenced books.


Douglas Engelbart: Augmenting Intelligence

Douglas Engelbart
Douglas Engelbart (Photo credit: nilsohman)

It’s been a week since Doug Engelbart died. You may not know him as well as some of the other pioneers of personal computing, but he was an amazing person by all accounts.

I first learned about his ideas and life story in John Markoff’s excellent 2005 book, What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry.

In this book, NY Times reporter Markoff describes the competition between two technological world views represented in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early to mid-1960s. Engelbart led the Augmentation Research Center at Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International), “dedicated to the concept that powerful computing machines would be able to substantially increase the power of the human mind.” Across the Stanford campus, the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab (SAIL), led by John McCarthy, “began with the goal of creating a simulated human intelligence.

“One group,” Markoff wrote, “worked to augment the human mind; the other to replace it.”

Engelbart was originally inspired by Vannevar Bush’s postwar essay, “As We May Think,” that, among other things, described the Memex, envisioned as a really smart piece of office furniture. This article from The Atlantic’s Alexis C. Madrigal tells you a lot about that encounter.

An illustration of Vannevar Bush's Memex, from Life Magazine
An illustration of Vannevar Bush’s Memex, from Life Magazine

At the ARC, Engelbart and his research team put together both concepts and devices that really form the basis of many of the bits that govern our technological lives today. Nearly all of Engelbart’s obituaries included the phrase “Inventor of the Computer Mouse.” But that was certainly not all he did. Take the time to watch what Steven Levy dubbed “The Mother of All Demos,” delivered December 9, 1968. You’ll be amazed, I think.

If you read some of these obits, you may actually conclude that Engelbart’s peaked some 45 years ago. This is not a completely unwarranted conclusion, I’m afraid. I will discuss this further in another post, as this one’s getting a little long. More links next time too!

For now, you can learn a bit more about Engelbart’s legacy in this very sharp piece from Bret Victor.

I got this Engelbart quote from Boing Boing. It’s a fitting epitaph:

“The key thing about all the world’s big problems is that they have to be dealt with collectively. If we don’t get collectively smarter, we’re doomed.” – Douglas Engelbart (1925- 2013)