The Allure of Automation in an Imperfect World

Today, I read an utterly fascinating article by Nicholas Carr entitled All Can Be Lost: The Risk of Putting Our Knowledge in the Hands of Machines. In the opening paragraphs, he recounts two airline accidents whose causes stemmed from human error. More than simply mistakes, these instances suggested a lack of “situational awareness” and a potential overreliance on modern autopilot systems.

This line in particular literally leapt off the page at me, when I encountered it:

Automation has become so sophisticated that on a typical passenger flight, a human pilot holds the controls for a grand total of just three minutes. What pilots spend a lot of time doing is monitoring screens and keying in data. They’ve become, it’s not much of an exaggeration to say, computer operators.

Three minutes is crazy to imagine. Let’s even bump it up and be generous, and say 10 minutes. For an average 90 minute flight, that’s still a pretty staggering ratio of human to autopilot.

Throughout the article, Carr explores both the benefits and pitfalls of our increasingly automated world – and how humans (from pilots to doctors to Inuit hunters) may ultimately be trading skill for efficiency.

Highly engrossing and highly recommended article. And I also have to say, that last paragraph is really, extremely well written. The whole article is well written, but that last paragraph is a delight.

[Illustration by Kyle Bean]

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