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How automation could take your skills -- and your job

Patrick Thibodeau | Nov. 11, 2014
A new book by Nicholas Carr should give IT managers pause about the rush to automation

What is the worry here? If I can get into my self-driving car in the morning, I can sit back and work on other things.
There are two worries. One is practical and the other is philosophical. The actuality of what's facing us in the foreseeable future is not complete automation, it's not getting into your car and simply allowing the computer to take over. It's not getting into a plane with no pilots. What we're looking at is a shared responsibility between human experts and computers. So, yes, maybe at some point in the future we will have completely autonomous vehicles able to handle traffic in cities. We're still a long way away from that. We have to figure out how to best balance the responsibilities between the human expert or professional and computer. I think we're going down the wrong path right now. We're too quick to hand over too much responsibility to the computer and what that ends up doing is leaving the expert or professional in a kind of a passive role: looking at monitors, following templates, entering data. The problem, and we see it with pilots and doctors, is when the computer fails, when either the technology breaks down, or the computer comes up against some situation that it hasn't been programmed to handle, then the human being has to jump back in take control, and too often we have allowed the human expert skills to get rusty and their situational awareness to fade away and so they make mistakes. At the practical level, we can be smarter and wiser about how we go about automating and make sure that we keep the human engaged.

Then we have the philosophical side, what are human beings for? What gives meaning to our lives and fulfills us? And it turns out that it is usually doing hard work in the real world, grappling with hard challenges, overcoming them, expanding our talents, engaging with difficult situations. Unfortunately, that is the kind of effort that software programmers, for good reasons of their own, seek to alleviate today. There is a kind of philosophical tension or even existential tension between our desire to offload hard challenges onto computers, and that fact that as human beings, we gain fulfilment and satisfaction and meaning through struggling with hard challenges.

Let's talk about software developers. In the book, you write that the software profession's push to "to ease the strain of thinking is taking a toll on their own skills." If the software development tools are becoming more capable, are software developers becoming less capable?
I think in many cases they are. Not in all cases. We see concerns -- this is the kind of tricky balancing act that we always have to engage in when we automate -- and the question is: Is the automation pushing people up to higher level of skills or is it turning them into machine operators or computer operators -- people who end up de-skilled by the process and have less interesting work. I certainly think we see it in software programming itself. If you can look to integrated development environments, other automated tools, to automate tasks that you have already mastered, and that have thus become routine to you that can free up your time, [that] frees up your mental energy to think about harder problems. On the other hand, if we use automation to simply replace hard work, and therefore prevent you from fully mastering various levels of skills, it can actually have the opposite effect. Instead of lifting you up, it can establish a ceiling above which your mastery can't go because you're simply not practicing the fundamental skills that are required as kind of a baseline to jump to the next level.


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