With computers being given more and more responsibilities as they become smarter, faster, and able to decide on their own, the problem is how to go about it when they start making mistakes: from confusing a car stuck in traffic as illegally parked, to crashing planes to the ground (and killing everyone on board) the paradox of automation is the slow erosion of skills and expertise of the operators, rendering them useless when things go wrong.
The paradox of automation, then, has three strands to it. First, automatic systems accommodate incompetence by being easy to operate and by automatically correcting mistakes. Because of this, an inexpert operator can function for a long time before his lack of skill becomes apparent – his incompetence is a hidden weakness that can persist almost indefinitely. Second, even if operators are expert, automatic systems erode their skills by removing the need for practice. Third, automatic systems tend to fail either in unusual situations or in ways that produce unusual situations, requiring a particularly skilful response. A more capable and reliable automatic system makes the situation worse.
There are plenty of situations in which automation creates no such paradox. A customer service webpage may be able to handle routine complaints and requests, so that staff are spared repetitive work and may do a better job for customers with more complex questions. Not so with an aeroplane. Autopilots and the more subtle assistance of fly-by-wire do not free up the crew to concentrate on the interesting stuff. Instead, they free up the crew to fall asleep at the controls, figuratively or even literally. One notorious incident occurred late in 2009, when two pilots let their autopilot overshoot Minneapolis airport by more than 100 miles. They had been looking at their laptops.
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