The Risk of Putting Our Knowledge in the Hands of Machines

by Sabrina I. Pacifici on November 2, 2013

“The experience of airlines should give us pause. It reveals that automation, for all its benefits, can take a toll on the performance and talents of those who rely on it. The implications go well beyond safety. Because automation alters how we act, how we learn, and what we know, it has an ethical dimension. The choices we make, or fail to make, about which tasks we hand off to machines shape our lives and the place we make for ourselves in the world. That has always been true, but in recent years, as the locus of labor-saving technology has shifted from machinery to software, automation has become ever more pervasive, even as its workings have become more hidden from us. Seeking convenience, speed, and efficiency, we rush to off-load work to computers without reflecting on what we might be sacrificing as a result. Doctors use computers to make diagnoses and to perform surgery. Wall Street bankers use them to assemble and trade financial instruments. Architects use them to design buildings. Attorneys use them in document discovery. And it’s not only professional work that’s being computerized. Thanks to smartphones and other small, affordable computers, we depend on software to carry out many of our everyday routines. We launch apps to aid us in shopping, cooking, socializing, even raising our kids. We follow turn-by-turn GPS instructions. We seek advice from recommendation engines on what to watch, read, and listen to. We call on Google, or Siri, to answer our questions and solve our problems. More and more, at work and at leisure, we’re living our lives inside glass cockpits…Whether it’s a pilot on a flight deck, a doctor in an examination room, or an Inuit hunter on an ice floe, knowing demands doing. One of the most remarkable things about us is also one of the easiest to overlook: each time we collide with the real, we deepen our understanding of the world and become more fully a part of it. While we’re wrestling with a difficult task, we may be motivated by an anticipation of the ends of our labor, but it’s the work itself—the means—that makes us who we are. Computer automation severs the ends from the means. It makes getting what we want easier, but it distances us from the work of knowing. As we transform ourselves into creatures of the screen, we face an existential question: Does our essence still lie in what we know, or are we now content to be defined by what we want? If we don’t grapple with that question ourselves, our gadgets will be happy to answer it for us.”

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