Guest Post: Our Critical Human Skills

I am delighted to share a post from friend and colleague Chan Hardwick, former Headmaster at Blair Academy:

The Saturday Review edition of last week’s The Wall Street Journal (November 23rd) led with a seemingly familiar article about how machines are replacing people by performing more and more traditionally human tasks. However, rather than being about what people can do that machines cannot (yet), the article (“Automation Make Us Dumb,” by Nicholas Carr) focused on the claim that the rise of machines—and particularly cutting edge software—has “de-skilled” humans, as we stop using and practicing various manual, critical thinking, and aesthetic skills that machines have begun to assume. The three examples he uses—and there could certainly be more—are airline pilots, doctors, and architects.

The airline pilot example, that commercial airplanes planes are largely flown “by wire” and much less often manually, brought back to me an experience that occurred some ten years ago on a flight I took from Washington to Los Angeles. As it turned out, two flights from DC to LA were leaving fairly close to each other, and a significant number of passengers switched to the slightly earlier flight, leaving me and maybe a few dozen passengers more or less alone on a Boeing 777 for our cross-country flight. Towards the end of the trip, the pilot strolled back among the passengers and announced that he was not landing the plane; the auto-pilot was. “Smoothest landing you’ll ever have,” he boasted, though God knows why. Yet, sure enough, we barely felt the touchdown, as the plane was computer-controlled right through the gate docking. Naturally, I started having wild, irrational fears that a future flight might have some catastrophe and I might find myself in the cockpit being instructed how to run the computer so we could land safely. (“Where’s the mouse?!”)

The doctor part of the article focused on the potential tunnel vision doctors might have when they abandon their instincts and come to a diagnosis via artificial intelligence; and Carr relates research that architects that depend too heavily on computer-driven design lose the critical value of their own aesthetic vision. So, generally, the assertion is that as humans stop or reduce our use on high-level skills, we tend to become less skillful, no longer deft and assured when landing planes; losing our experience-driven synthetic medical thinking; and failing to stimulate our imagination when machines bring designs to us fully conceived. 

Over the years I have heard the same de-skill concern about education as calculators speed students through to answers, papers are auto-corrected for spelling and grammar, and even handwriting is predicted to be obsolete in the next ten years. (Perhaps we can imagine some ten-year-old camper stranded in the wilds after a winter storm but unable to figure out how to spell out HELP in the snow to guide rescuers.) Certainly we have moved to an era increasingly free of time-consuming, low skill tasks that are much better handled by machines, computers, and very cool applications, but do we really want to look back and wonder vaguely—now that the Machine always reads everything to me—could I actually read this book on my own?

Despite the trend, there are ways to use technology but keep human skills fresh. Carr relates that airline pilot training and retraining increasingly includes manual flying to keep skills fresh, and there is even a plan to have the computer periodically hand off the controls to the pilot during a flight to keep awareness high and complacency at bay. This refreshing of skills precludes the de-skilling process, while subtly reminding the pilot who has the ultimate responsibility for the flight. Other strategies especially suited to education include making sure the essential skill—math, grammar, spelling, etc.—is thoroughly mastered before turning it over to a machine. And a project planning process called “human-centered automation” boils down to pushing machine-oriented tasks to an assistance role, particularly for repetitive, thoughtless, and routine tasks, while constantly asking for human opinion, perspective, and in-put. By placing the human skills and ability ahead of machines in the process, the project will not lose the critical thinking and experience that software cannot yet bring to the table. 

And, let’s be real: cloud computing, technology intelligence, sharing information and work from afar and often—these are all new and evolving capabilities that make human work better, more collaborative, and frankly more fun (and not just because you can surf when you are bored). I read Carr’s article not as an attack on artificial intelligence or technology use, but on the potential threat to essential human function skills that continue to make the ourselves and the world safer, more responsive, and more uniquely “human”. 

Nonetheless, as machines become better and better—think of the voice of Scarlett Johansson in the movie Her helping with your next project—how do we keep our critical human skills up? Use them, and use them often. In the education world, we have the power to make sure than happens, even as we redesign how we acquire and practice those skills in ways that feel more relevant and useful. And as we learn to use machines without utter dependence, we can elevate non-machine skills that are still so essential, such as public speaking, incisive and persuasive writing, creative problem solving, and compassionate service and involvement.