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Keeping Control

May 21st 2015

Carr describes doctors who become so reliant on decision-assistance software that they overlook subtle signals from patients or dismiss improbable but accurate diagnoses. He interviews architects whose drawing skills decay as they transition to digital platforms. And he recounts frightening instances when commercial airline pilots fail to perform simple corrections in emergencies because they are so used to trusting the autopilot system. Carr is quick to acknowledge that these technologies often do enhance and assist human skills. But he makes a compelling case that our relationship with them is not as wholly positive as we might think.

We can all relate to this.  When the GPS signal fails – or more likely the phone battery goes flat – many people now seem unable to read a simple map.  Everyone has heard of the stories of woe when someone too slavishly follows the satnav.  Even that exemplar of rational thought, Jeremy Clarkson, has commented (ranted) on how he was imprisoned in a new flat as he couldn’t work the TV, cooker or microwave and the Bluetooth door entry system was the last straw.

But surely technology can be particularly beneficial when assisting our own endeavours.  However, a decade old study presents a different view.  In a 2004 experiment two groups of subjects played a computer game based on a well known logic puzzle.   The first group of players used software that offered assistance, the second group did not.  Initially, those using the helpful software made rapid progress, but over time the second group made fewer wrong moves and solved the puzzle more efficiently. The psychologist running the study concluded that those who received less assistance were more likely to develop a better understanding of the game’s rules and strategise accordingly.

As we all know, we need to viscerally experience confusion and dead-ends in order to really learn certain principles. That’s why savvy teachers avoid rushing in to assist students at the first hint of incomprehension. It’s neither necessary nor possible to abolish calculators and spellcheck programs in our lives, but sometimes removing these tools can help ensure that we use technology in order to free our minds for more interesting tasks.

After all the word “robot” derives from robota, a Czech term for servitude.  We need to be clear who’s in charge.

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