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October 2014

The Unprecedented Ways Automation is Changing Life

Last week, NPR reported on Nicholas Carr’s recently released book, The Glass Cage. Carr is known as an author with pronounced concerns about the increasingly large role played by technology in our lives, and in his most recent book, Carr takes a look at the growing list of tasks that we can automate.

It seems that the rising popularity of the self-driving car may be the thing that sparked Carr to voice his concerns. In his interview with NPR, he says, “At least you used to have to figure out where you were. And even with a paper map, you’d have to locate yourself somewhere and figure out what the landmarks around you are and kind of get a sense of place. And that’s no longer necessary when you have the voice come on and say, ‘In 500 yards turn left, 200 yards turn right.’ I do think there’s something lost there.” 

In previous articles, we have explored the controversial points in automation that have caused some to worry about the implications of this kind of technology for the economy and the American workforce. But Carr is worried about something else here. A few weeks ago, NPR also did a story on how the Americana father/son bonding ritual of fixing a car was going to change with the increasing numbers of computerized elements in the average car. It’s this kind of threat to a lifestyle that Carr is concerned about, but truthfully this may be the kind of change that we are least able to anticipate.

Carr notes other examples of potential cultural changes that may result from an increasing presence of automation: less experience doctors, pilots, and other professionals. New and different professional and personal relationships.  Loss of intellectual stimulation at home and in the work place.

Perhaps the most disturbing example Carr gives is in the need that we have created for machines to make our moral and ethical decisions on our behalf. He provides the oft-cited example of an autonomous car put in the position to decide whether it will hit a child in the road or crash into a tunnel, possibly killing the passenger.

When considering these kinds of questions, it is important to be contextual. For example, it is worth considering the safety ratings on automated cars versus manually operated cars. Automated cars have very low accident rates, and so in a future where most cars on the road are automated, it seems likely that even if we are put in the position that we rely on machines to make these kinds of split-second moral decisions, we will probably be saving lives overall by having more automated cars on the road. Considering the number of injuries and fatalities that already occur as a result of vehicular accidents, it is in a way amazing that we as a society have invested so heavily in car ownership as a lifestyle. It is already a significant gamble.

In regards to concerns over a changing culture and the potential for loss of opportunities for mental stimulation, this is pretty closely related to the concern over the loss of job opportunities that occur as a result of automation. In response, those defending automation usually reply that companies replacing employees with automation should consider offering training to their employees so that they can pursue higher-level jobs in engineering and maintenance of machines, etc. But because this concern is specifically that we are depriving ourselves of much of the substance of our daily thoughts, it is worth considering what kinds of opportunities automation presents us in this regards. Theoretically, automation should free people of repetitive, uninteresting tasks such that they can use their time in better ways. This means that rather than bemoan the loss of opportunities for mental stimulation, we should consider the potential that new opportunities will be created.

This concern that an increasing role played by technology will diminish our abilities to feel grounded in the world and close in our personal connections is not uncommon, but is also not necessarily supported by the evidence. For example, studies have shown that the increasing use of text message shorthand has not diminished students’ abilities to write correctly. However, we should also consider that there is evidence to suggest automation does not always offer us the benefits we expect. For example, studies have shown that though we now have access to so many devices and apps to help us stay organized and save time, that most people now report feeling even more stressed and more pressed for time than ever.