How much of ‘us’ can be lost?

With AI systems transforming every field, professionals should learn to identify areas where technology should take a back seat

With the short story The Fun They Had, Isaac Asimov rightly predicted where technology was headed. Never mind that the sci-fi writer zoomed too far into the future. The point is: he still managed to get the focus right.

The story, published in 1951, summons up a scenario from over 200 years later in which technology has written the requiem of schools and human-teachers. We don’t have to live until the 2150s to be able to relate to this story.

In 2020, it is already relatable.

The story ends on a wistful note with Margie, the young protagonist, trying to picture herself heading to a concrete built-school with other children, and studying under the supervision of human-teachers, with all its attendant excitement and fun. She marvels at the human element that has been lost.

We are like Margie. However, the longing here has a different timbre to it. With eyes glued on the future, we are left wondering how much of “us” we would be losing to technology.

All these questions relating to man-machine conflict are particularly loud in the context of the workplace, with the most-asked question being: “Would we be losing something that is worth keeping forever?”

Two situations

The loss of the human element can affect one or two situations or both.

Situation one: The wisdom of doing nothing or just the most necessary thing, when the systems at one’s disposal are by default geared to get into an overdrive.

Situation two: The wisdom of intervening and effecting a positive outcome, when such intervention is not mandated by the rule-book. Let us look at the second situation, viewing it in the light of an example from the shipping industry.

Manoj Joy, a former sea-farer and founder-editor of Waves, a privately-circulated monthly magazine for the sea-faring community, has this to say about the impact of automation on sea-farers.

“In the shipping industry, work in the area of autonomous cargo ships is proceeding at a fast clip, and large-scale operations by such ships are likely to happen in this generation, or certainly the next. There are certain obvious advantages of going autonomous: the element of human error can be eliminated. Loss of lives due to natural calamities in the seas can be prevented. Piracy can be checked, as the design of these automated cargo ships are expected to be entirely cargo-focussed with no provisions for people to board them. They would likely be just “packed systems”, meant to give room only for the cargo that has to be transported. Moreover, pirates will not have any hostages to take.”

The human intervention

There are also arguments against autonomous cargo ships, and some of these are technological in nature.

Focussing on the human-related disadvantages, Manoj says, “There is the obvious question of how sea-farers would fare in this scenario. There are conflicting studies about loss of jobs, with some suggesting that the loss would not be significant, and others pointing in the opposite direction. However, as a former sea-farer, I know that certain human dynamics of sea-faring would be lost. Across the world, there are frequent cases of cargo ships rescuing those in distress while travelling in boats and any watercraft. The most well-known example is from 2015 when Captain Radhika Menon of the Indian Merchant Navy led a swift operation along with her crew aboard an oil tanker to save seven fishermen stuck in a boat with engine failure in the Bay of Bengal. Can you imagine an autonomous cargo ship taking the decision to rescue stranded fishermen and executing the operation? So, in my view, the prudent approach would be to automate cargo ships considerably, but not entirely divorce them from the human element.”

The second situation is that of knowing when not to do anything, and avoid unnecessary processes.

Again, there are examples to be drawn from many fields, and we will look at this question in the light of an example from the medical field.

The right process

Here is what Dr. A. Shaik Sulaiman Meeran, professor of internal medicine, Government Royapettah Hospital and Kilpauk Medical College, Chennai, has to say about achieving that human-technology balance.

“It is indeed commendable that AI-systems such as robotic surgery are bringing greater precision to medical treatment. However, amidst the technological advances, the need for that personal touch is still as important as ever before. There is no substitute for a thorough-going clinical examination, which should be carried out first, and followed by necessary investigations, as part of the right process. Let me put this in perspective for you. Many decades ago, clinical examination would be done thoroughly, as there weren’t many diagnostic tools at a doctor’s disposal and clinical examination was the key to diagnosis. Now, with the advance of technology, there are many tools to carry out investigations. The flip side of it is that doctors are becoming more investigation-dependent. It may be the result of a fear that something may be missed and the patient would turn a litigant. It may also be due to the fact that patients themselves expect investigations to be done early on. In the process, the skill of clinical examination is getting lost; and there is also the problem of patients going through needless investigations as a result of it. Despite the availability of investigative tools, doctors have to continue to hone the science-art of clinical examination — with AI-assisted systems already transforming the medical field, it is important to remind themselves of this cardinal truth.”

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 2:47:31 AM |

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