You Can Have Too Much Automation

I’ve discussed this idea before – that automation can cause problems due to the loss of skills taken over by the technology.  The machine will take care of things, so the operators no longer have to worry about it.  In my post two years ago the automation in question was for trains.  The most recent example concerns commercial aircraftEdward Tenner at The Atlantic describes the problem as a decline in emergency skills due to increasing reliance on automation. Pilots are less likely to know what to do when problems arise because they have been using automation much more frequently than before.  (Perhaps its worth noting that Captain Sully had to deal with the bird collision shortly after takeoff, long before an auto-pilot would have been used.)

But he also links this dependence on technology to a seemingly unrelated field – agriculture.  Apparently (though not really a surprise) several herbicide-resistant strains of seeds have been used so much that pests have evolved in response.  Overuse of these strains, and the herbicides associated with them, has led to a loss of effective pest control.  In this case its not a loss of knowledge, but an increase in monoculture, where single threats are more effective against a large homogenous target.

In his article Tenner argues for a “more tentative approach to innovation.”  I think this glosses over an important distinction between the development of technology and its implementation.  I read Tenner to mean that we should be more tentative in broadly using new technologies and be more sensitive to potential – if not yet demonstrated – adverse consequences.  But that does not mean a tentative approach toward researching and developing new technologies.  Arguably such dependence on technology would support additional use-oriented research during technology development.

Either way, the loss of skill happens.  The rush to new technologies should not immediately place the ‘old’ on the dustbin.  Archived, maybe, but not disposed.  Let’s chalk this up to another instance of the seductive nature of technological fixes.