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Computers are making us dumb: Nicholas Carr

Automation makes our lives easier and safer, but it also makes us dumb, according to a new book. Pilots are lulled into complacency as autopilot gets passengers to their location safely; doctors rely on streamlined, computerized processes to diagnose patients, and drivers prefer looking at their GPS instead of street signs.

47% of U.S. employment is at risk of being automated within the next two decades. Automation certainly threatens our jobs, but also threatens the way we interact and function in the world. In his new book, “The Glass Cage,” Nicholas Carr argues that automation erodes our skills, leads to “automation complacency,” and dulls our interest in understanding the world around us.

“The reason we’re so enamored of automation and computers and software that do everything for us,” says Carr, “is because it does relieve us of certain burdens and add convenience to our lives.” But there’s a dark side to that, he warns. Automation makes it easier for us to disengage from difficult tasks. “What that means is you’re not pushed to go to the next level of talent.”

While technologists might argue that automation of difficult tasks would free us to do other, more meaningful things, Carr doesn’t see that happening. “If you look at places where work or activities have been highly automated… what you see is the system start to turn skilled workers into computer operators.”

A major airline pilot, for example, spends most of his or her time manning computer screens and entering data. They only end up flying the plane for a short period of time. “That’s not freeing them to think big thoughts about aviation,” says Carr. “It’s making them more complacent… they begin to tune out, they lose situational awareness and so when something goes wrong, you suddenly see people making mistakes in high-risk situations.”

Carr argues that we also put too much faith into automation, and give “undue weight,” to information provided by computers. Not using human judgment to double check the work of programs and algorithms can lead to major market crashes like the flash crash in 2010.

So will automation render us all unskilled and useless? Not necessarily, says Carr. “The danger is that we see more and more jobs being handed over to computers simply because they’re more efficient,” he says. But warns that while, “you can program a computer to do certain things, they’re never going to do it as well as a person can.”

However, automation breeds automation, according to Carr. We’re stuck in a cycle where “we’re taking the tasks away from people and so people are less able to perform them, so we say ‘well we need to bring in more computers because people can’t do the job.’”