Automation Technology and Human Performance: Current Research and Trends

By Mark W. Scerbo | Go to book overview

Automation and Human Purpose: How Do We Decide What Should Be Automated?

Raymond S. Nickerson Tufts University

I was very pleased to be asked to participate in this conference, but I had some difficulty deciding on a topic. One possibility that came to mind was the historical roots of automation. In A history of western technology, Klemm ( 1964) points out the importance that the role of changing attitudes toward human rights in the much-maligned middle ages had in the building of a civilization that "no longer, like that of antiquity, rested on the backs of slaves, but to a greater and greater extent derived power from machinery" (p. 56). In classical Greece and Rome, among other ancient cultures, labor was viewed as the province of slaves, and human beings were the primary source of power. Progress during the Middle Ages in tapping the wind, water, and draught animals as alternatives to slaves as power sources was made in the context of promotion by the church of the idea that all people are created free. The building of sailing ships that could be used without oarsmen and the use of water wheels to drive mills of various sorts are only two of many technological innovations that appeared during this time. It would be fascinating to consider the historical roots of automation, especially with a view to attempting to understand some of the more influential psychological and cultural factors involved, but I decided not to try this.

Another possible topic that struck me as particularly interesting was automation in literature. In The fourth discontinuity, Bruce Mazlish ( 1993) discusses this, citing such examples as "The Nightingale" of Hans Christian Andersen , Mary Shelley Dr. Frankenstein, the Tiktok of L. Frank Baum Oz stories, and Karel Kapek robots in his play R.U.R. More recent well-known fictional treatments of humanoid robots include Isaac Asimov I Robot, and Arthur Clarke 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are many other works of fiction in which automation, or some aspect thereof, figures as a prominent theme. Charlotte Bronte Shirley, George Orwell 1984, and Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano are among them. In many of these works, automation has received somewhat bad press. It would be interesting to consider whether this is representative of the treatment of automation in literature generally and, if so, why that is the case. But again, I decided not to go down this path.

A number of other topics suggested themselves as possibilities. The one that I decided I would most like to spend some time thinking about was automation and human purpose. It strikes me as not only a very important topic, but one that probably does not get the attention it deserves from technologists. So, for better or worse, that is what I will focus on in this paper. What I propose to do is toss out a few of the questions that consideration of this topic brings to mind. The questions are not rhetorical; I do not come with answers to them. My hope in expressing them is to make the case that they are worthy of continuing thought and reflection.


WHAT SHOULD BE AUTOMATED?

The technology of our age is information technology, by which I mean computer and communication technology, and especially their blending. Progress in this area during the last half of the 20th century has been nothing short of phenomenal, and its importance for automation would be difficult to overstate. In large part because of the rapid development of information technology, the future of automation appears to be unbounded. Many processes -- including especially cognitive or intellective processes -- that one could hardly have imagined being automated even a few decades ago have been automated or now appear to be automatable within the foreseeable future. Given the apparently unlimited possibilities, the question naturally arises: What should be automated?

One answer to the question is "everything that can be automated." One climbs the mountain because it is there. One automates because it is possible to do so. This is an answer that might be given by those who see automation primarily as an intellectual challenge, whose main goal is to push the boundaries of what is

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