Is Software Making Us Dumb?

A couple of weeks ago, a man drove a tractor-trailer into a Milwaukee park and over two pedestrian bridges, where it ultimately got stuck (a towing company had to use a crane to lift the trailer onto a nearby road). The driver blamed his GPS device for the mishap, although his eyes and common sense (as well as posted signs) should have caused him to hit the brakes and turn around long before reaching that point of no return.

Truck Gets Stuck in Milwaukee Park, Driver Blames GPS (Source: WTMJ)
Truck Gets Stuck in Milwaukee Park, Driver Blames GPS (Source: WTMJ)

I recalled this incident a few days later when I read a thought-provoking essay in the Wall Street Journal by Nicholas Carr, Automation Makes Us Dumb. Here’s an excerpt from the opening paragraphs:

Artificial intelligence has arrived. Today’s computers are discerning and sharp. They can sense the environment, untangle knotty problems, make subtle judgments and learn from experience…But our growing reliance on computer automation may be exacting a high price. Worrisome evidence suggests that our own intelligence is withering as we become more dependent on the artificial variety. Rather than lifting us up, smart software seems to be dumbing us down.

Carr references research conducted in the 1950s by Harvard Business School professor James Bright who studied the effects of automation on a variety of industries. “Bright concluded that the overriding effect of automation was (in the jargon of labor economists) to ‘de-skill’ workers rather than to ‘up-skill’ them.” In Bright’s words, “The lesson should be increasingly clear — ‘highly complex equipment’ did not require skilled operators. The ‘skill’ can be built into the machine.”

Today, the skill is being built into the software, especially for managing supply chain and logistics operations. As an industry analyst, I applaud the ongoing advancements in optimization technology, and how cloud computing and business intelligence apps are helping companies to analyze more data and solve more complex problems faster. But as software becomes smarter and more powerful, are supply chain and logistics professionals, especially those entering the workforce today, being de-skilled in the process?

When I was a teenager, I worked as a cashier at my father’s bodega, and the cash register was old fashioned — that is, you couldn’t enter how much cash was tendered and have it compute how much change to give back. I had to do the math all in my head, and very quickly too. It’s a skill that has served me well in life, especially when I don’t have a calculator nearby. The next time you go to a convenience store or a McDonald’s, hand the cashier some nickels and pennies to round down the total after the register has already computed the change amount and see what happens (hint: you might see a very confused and flustered person).

It’s the same look you might see on a transportation planner’s face if their company’s transportation management system goes down. How will today’s deliveries get routed and executed? Planners that have experience routing trucks manually — the old fashioned way, using maps, rulers, and push pins — will get the job done, even if the routes they create are less than optimal. But planners that have always relied on software to do the thinking and computation for them will probably not know where to start.

“Our skills get sharper only through practice, when we use them regularly to overcome different sorts of difficult challenges,” writes Carr. This is especially true for airline pilots. In response to a growing link between crashes and an overreliance on automation, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is “urging airlines to get pilots to spend more time flying by hand [instead of autopilot].”

Should supply chain professionals do the same? Should we turn off the software every once in a while, as a training exercise, and force ourselves to solve a problem manually? I believe so. It would force us to revisit and reinforce (or even learn for the first time) the fundamental concepts, logic, and math embedded in the software. We often treat software as a black box, where we enter data and out comes an answer, but if we don’t understand how the answer is derived, do we really know what we’re doing? And if we don’t truly understand how a process works, are we limiting our ability to drive continuous improvement and innovation?

Earlier this year in Trust Yourself More Than a Computer, I argued that in order to spark innovation, we have to get out of our comfort zone, and sometimes that means turning off the computer, turning off the autopilot, turning off the automation, and trusting our human senses and experience to make the right decisions. It’s what that truck driver in Milwaukee should have done. Turning off the automation sometimes — or taking a “human-centered automation” approach as Carr advocates in his essay — is also a way to keep our minds and skills sharp, so that we don’t become confused and flustered when the unexpected happens and we’re forced to think for ourselves.

Is software making us dumb? Only if we let it.