I recall reading a few SF stories, years ago, that dealt with the question "What if increased automation causes an atrophy of human skill-sets and brain learning/functionality?"
Those stories preceded and arguably predicted pretty accurately what we are seeing today.
One remarkable atrophy that was predicted was in the use of skills for basic arithmetic and logic. This at any rate is something that we can observe with our own eyes.
- Calculator arithmetic: The non-development or non-use of basic mental arithmetic skills due to people's reliance on handheld calculators for (say) adding up a set of numbers.
I have even seen people mindlessly add up 2 and 2 on a calculator, producing the surprising result = 4.
However, the irony of that is - as any accountant should be able to tell us - that handheld calculators are unreliable for (say) adding up sets of numbers, because people make mistakes using them (e.g., punching the wrong keys) and have no way of knowing - no trace - that they made a mistake. The only reliable ones are those with an add-list (printout) that enables you to find the human error as you tick off every number in the addition/subtraction to ensure that it has been correctly entered. You could even make mistakes in the ticking-off process too, of course.
I have even seen people add up the same list of numbers twice, using a handheld calculator, apparently on the misconception that repeating the process through a second operation was somehow going to magically check/prove the first operation. Depressing, really.
The barcode scanners at supermarket checkouts automate this sort of process a step further, eliminating that simple human error at the data entry point. The role of the teller then becomes just a mover of parcels from conveyor belt into the shopping basket. Even that role could become redundant with the introduction of self-service checkouts.
- Cross-casting errors: A common error in Excel spreadsheets is where a table - containing columns of numbers where the columns are all totalled at the bottom - has been added up wrong, because of a simple error in a formula somewhere. The authors of these spreadsheets assume that it is added up correctly, because - well, heck, it's been added up by a computer, right?
Well, yes, and added up wrongly, using exactly the logic it was told to use.
The quickest way to prove the arithmetic accuracy of such tables is to use Excel to cross-cast them in the spreadsheet - i.e., add them up across and down and check whether they come to the same grand total - but that will still not identify where there may have been a compensating error.
Quite a lot of people, including several accountants I have met - seem to be unaware of the principle of this simple check and are amazed when you show it to them...
It's like we seem to underestimate our own role in things, making ourselves subservient to and placing such store in computers as to lose sight of the fact that we
are a major source of error and that the computer thing is an idiot automaton that is unable to detect a human error. We are dumbed-down, or dumb ourselves down, in this way.
Nevertheless, the user
is and remains responsible for building-in checks to prove the correctness of the spreadsheet, just as the pilot is responsible for knowing which way to pull the joystick in an emergency if the auto-pilot fails.
So don't blame the technology. If the responsibility is not there/taken, and (say) the plane crashes, then it is arguably the process of pilot training that has failed to develop/maintain those infrequently-required skills in the pilot, not necessarily that the technology has somehow made us stupid or atrophied our skills. It is a failure of pilot training
, which would have run quite contrary to standard pilot training practice - which is to drill, drill and drill again in standard/common emergency procedures.