May 31 2010

Our Coming Robot Overlords

The recent oil spill in the Gulf has prompted a great deal of wringing of hands – how do such disasters happen? David Brooks discusses in the New York Times that the cause is primarily due to the fact that our modern technological civilization is becoming too complex for us to manage adequately. The Deepwater Horizon oil rig is just one example of a piece of technology that is beyond the mastery of any single person. But there are also nuclear power plants, computer operating systems, jet airliners, financial systems, operating rooms, and numerous other examples.

Brooks concludes:

So it seems important, in the months ahead, to not only focus on mechanical ways to make drilling safer, but also more broadly on helping people deal with potentially catastrophic complexity. There must be ways to improve the choice architecture — to help people guard against risk creep, false security, groupthink, the good-news bias and all the rest.

This seems reasonable. Certainly we  need to get better at managing such complexity, by having clear lines of authority and responsibility, proper risk assessment, and a thorough understanding of group dynamics.

I also wrote previously about The Checklist Manifesto – Atul Gawande offers his own solution, the humble checklist. He convincingly argues that using checklists allows for better communication among individuals engaged in complex tasks, and results in systematic best practices and avoidance of forgetting details. Don’t rely on training and human memory, he argues – have a system.

These are all excellent and practical ideas. They amount to devising methods for human beings to optimize their management of increasing complexity. And these strategies all work.

But I am left with the feeling, taking the longer view, that they are also stop-gap measures. Technological complexity will continue to increase, and it seems likely that complexity will outstrip our desperate attempts to manage it by modifying human behavior. Even if we become experts at mastering complexity, there are practical limits to what we can do.

This also relates to the notion of interdependency. As technology advances, people have to specialize on narrower and narrower slices of that technology. It used to be that craftsmen would construct an entire house – from foundation to finishing. Now a contractor will contract out to dozens of specialists who build one part of the house – an architect, a site engineer, foundation layer, a framer, a roofer, a plumber, electrician, drywall, painter, finishing carpenter, well driller, landscaper, and perhaps even a decorator. You would be hard pressed to find a single crew that can build an entire house anymore.

Medicine is another example – we still need generalists, but more and more they are becoming like contractors – guiding the overall management of health, but farming out to specialists the management of specific diseases and procedures.

The solution that we are increasingly turning to is computers. We are automating those checklists, using computers to communicate among specialists, and expert systems to guide specialists. Computer programs are increasingly involved in design and engineering,  risk management, and even the writing of other computer programs.

As end users we are becoming increasingly comfortable relying upon computers for our needs. The GPS is the perfect example of this. Rather than consulting a map, learning the roads, and planning a route – you simply plug in your destination and mindlessly follow turn-by-turn directions. They are wonderful devices, extremely useful, and that is part of my point.

Computers are already evolving past useful to indispensable. The question is – are they tools to make us more productive and free us from drudgery so that we can engage in more creative endeavors? Or are they making us lazy and dependent by coddling us? Perhaps a combination of both.

One extreme vision of a dystopian future run by computer nannies is Wally. On board the ship that carries the remnants of humanity, people float around on recliners, endlessly engrossed in video entertainment, while the ship’s systems see to their every need.

I am not predicting such a future, nor am I advocating that we simply extrapolate from current trends to their absurd conclusion. But it is an interesting thought experiment – what will ultimately happen as our civilization becomes more and more complicated, and we need to rely more and more on computers? Some think we will merge with computers – we will become them, and will be able to expand our own mental abilities as needed. Perhaps.

We may also reach an equilibrium, at least for a while, between relying on computers and using computers to enhance our own abilities and productivity. We may also see subcultures in which every permutation plays itself out.

We also should not assume that as technology progresses complexity will necessarily increase as well. We may pass through a technological era of maximal complexity, but as our knowledge and technological prowess progress complexity will be replaced by elegant simplicity. Think of the elaborate systems that were in place to, say, publish a magazine, that have now all been replaced by the relative simplicity of desktop publishing. Perhaps technology brings an ebb and flow of complexity, rather than a continuous increase.

It also seems that humans will, to some extent, titrate their own complexity. As technology makes our lives simpler, we find new things to do that add complexity – to the limit of our tolerance, then we search for ways to simplify again.

All of these factors make predicting the future of technology and complexity extremely difficult. But it is interesting to think about.

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