Automation and Technology

In the book Messy, Tim Harford reveals some of the dangers of overconfidence in the increasing competency of technology. The most dramatic example is the unnecessary crash of Flight 447 with the loss of the lives of everyone on board. The plane was an Airbus 330, one of the world’s safest airplanes. The three pilots’ experiences made them overconfident. Instead of using technology to assist them, they abdicated their judgment and responsibility. It is a paradox that the likelihood of having serious outcomes increases from problems with technology as technology becomes more proficient.

This problem also exists in healthcare as doctors become more reliant on tests than on observation and patient interviews. We can also fall into the trap of expecting everything to be better with enhanced technology. The use of computer screens does not make everything better. Due to their efficiency, they are likely to increase vision-related problems. Most visual problems develop incrementally. It is fortunate that we do not notice every little change and it is usually an advantage that we are able to adapt. But adapting for this many hours a week can cause people to be unaware of or ignore problems which should be treated sooner.

This also applies to vision and driving. People who have not needed glasses to drive are often reluctant to accept when glasses will enhance their comfort and safety while driving. Seeing better can provide more time to make decisions, speed up reactions to sudden changes which need to be interpreted, and ameliorate the problems associated with night driving. Driving requires sustained attention and working memory. If seeing requires more effort and attention, the result can be similar to when people are talking on their phones; their useable visual field constricts.

This attitude about glasses and driving is not new. What is new is the response: “I don’t need glasses to drive. I have GPS.” Driving in unfamiliar places is stressful. Most of us do at least 95% of our driving where we know the roads and traffic patterns and know how we will get to our destination. Satellite navigation does help but it does not eliminate the importance of vision for judging distance and speed, and for seeing everything around us which an efficient visual system processes simultaneously. Vision enables us to see into the future and predict what will happen. It enables us to catch a ball. It also enables us to predict the movement of our car and those around us to avoid collisions.

We all have GPS stories. Problems occur when we are not using technology to assist us but to replace planning and judgment. Our GPS world is narrowed to what is on the screen and what we are being told. Tim Harford shares these examples.

Our learned helplessness in the hands of technology is sometimes more amusing than horrifying. In March 2012, three Japanese students visiting Australia decided to drive to North Stradbroke, guided by their GPS system. For some reason the GPS was not aware that their route was blocked by nine miles of the Pacific Ocean. These things happen, of course, but the reaction of the three tourists was extraordinary: in thrall to their technology, they drove their car on to the beach and across the mud flats towards the ocean. As the water lapped around their Hyundai, they realized, to their embarrassment, that they were stuck. With astonished ferry passengers looking on, the students abandoned their car and waded to shore. It’s fun to laugh at incompetent tourists. But it is also worth asking how on earth three sentient beings can drive into the Pacific Ocean on the instructions of GPS gone haywire.

The incident is far from unique. People following GPS guidance have driven their cars into a lake in Washington state, straight on a T-intersection and into a house in New Jersey, down a flight of stairs in Manhattan, along a rocky footpath to the brink of a cliff in Yorkshire and into a large sand pit at a construction site in Hamburg. This is known as automation bias; once a computer has made a recommendation, it is all too easy to accept that recommendation unthinkingly.

This is also an example of perceptual bias. Seeing is not passive. When we look, we usually have an expectation of what we will see. We recognize the object or person faster due to our expectation. Our perception is slower when we are just looking around without an expectation. But when our eyes are looking at something that is very different from what we expected, our perception may not only be slower, we may become temporarily overwhelmed and freeze. When this happens when we are driving, it may be humorous, but it may also be dangerous. Knowing that it is normal human behavior, Tim Harford suggests that a solution may be to require more human input (introduce a degree of messiness) even though it is not required by the technology.

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