It’s a long-time debate and one with no easy answer.
By Ed Butts, PE, CPI
The need for this column has finally arrived. I refer to the timeless issue and debate of “man versus machine.”
Now, I am not against the inherent improvements and easier lifestyles that have come with increasing technology. I certainly would not be the one to fetch water using a windlass from a well or in a bucket from a creek a half mile from my house. Nor would I want to drive a team of horses in a circle all day to drill a 20-foot-deep well.
But I do feel our reliance on machines may have passed a point of no return and that we should back up, take another look at the situation, and then make a careful decision as to how much technology we really need or want in our daily lives.
A National Research Council committee in 1951 attempted to characterize the differences in human-computer interaction—then called human-machine interaction—prior to developing the national air traffic control system.
The result was a set of characteristics called the Fitts List, which detailed the relative strengths and limitations of humans versus computers (see Table 1). This list is sometimes referred to as what “men are better at” as opposed to what “machines are better at” and provides an eye-opening appraisal of what was believed before the recent expansion of technology occurred.
This month’s column provides a look back on the various industrial revolutions we have already experienced and how our current one may be the one that proves humankind may have bitten off more than we can chew.
For the purposes of this discussion, a machine includes all forms and types of mechanically and electrically powered devices created by and for the use of humans including washing machines, dishwashers, airplanes, automobiles, TV sets, satellites, computers, and robots.
First Industrial Revolution
In my judgment, our world has experienced three distinct industrial revolutions. The first began in Europe and soon moved across the ocean to the United States. It started during the mid-1700s, ran through approximately 1850, and included technological improvements such as the steam engine and locomotion.
Water-generated power actually began centuries earlier, but years before the first industrial revolution the use of flowing water from rivers, streams, or canals harnessed this energy for power generation for milling grain and use in textile plants. The only problem with this technology was the plant had to be conveniently located adjacent to a body of flowing water with enough flow and velocity to make this viable.
In the 1760s, the ability to harness steam as a power source had been discovered and Scottish engineer James Watt began tinkering with one of the early steam engine models, adding a separate water condenser that made a far more efficient engine.
Watt later collaborated with Matthew Boulton to invent a steam engine with a rotary motion, a key innovation that would allow steam power to spread across British and U.S. industries including flour, paper, and cotton mills, iron works, and waterworks pumping.
In the early 1800s, Richard Trevithick debuted a steam-powered locomotive, and in 1830, similar locomotives started transporting freight and passengers between the industrial hubs of Manchester and Liverpool. By that time, steam powered boats and ships were already in wide use, carrying goods along Britain’s rivers and canals as well as traveling across the Atlantic Ocean to the eastern part of the United States for use with railroads.
Second Industrial Revolution
Immediately following the end of the first industrial revolution, the second industrial revolution began and lasted approximately 100 years until around 1960. It constantly explored new ways to lessen the burdens of human existence by passing them on to machines.
This resulted in a change from a primarily agricultural society and economy to one dominated by industry and an enhanced manufacturing ability through the expansive use of machines. These technological changes introduced new ways of working and living, which in turn fundamentally transformed human society and daily life.
It was a period of growth and improved manufacturing techniques for many existing industries and witnessed the expansion of new ones such as steel, oil, and electricity between 1870-1930.
And for the first time as human beings, we no longer had to retreat to the relatively dim existence of our homes once darkness ensued as electricity provided an alternative to smoky and dangerous gas lamps and candles.
Although the basis for atomic theory was discovered by John Dalton during the first industrial revolution, the theory of relativity, one of the basics of applying atomic theory, was introduced by Albert Einstein in 1905 and led to the introduction of atomic power and the atomic bomb during the mid-1940s.
This period also saw the introduction of one of the most technological improvements in history: the transistor. Other new technologies such as the skyscraper and internal combustion engines thrived and grew during this same period.
The variety of advances during these years also led to the introduction of two additional “A” technologies that would have a profound impact on transportation that continues today: automobiles and airplanes.
Third Industrial Revolution
The third and current industrial revolution began around 1970 and continues unabated today. This period has seen the explosion of smaller semiconductors, expanded chip memory, and improved integrated circuits used in most electronic devices today including computers, microprocessors, programmable logic controllers (PLCs), and video games.
This period has also introduced a new word to our daily lexicon—software. The explosion of technological advances includes more recent improvements such as drones, tablets and laptops, global positioning satellites (GPS), satellite TV, cellphones and smartphones, variable frequency drives (VFDs), robotics, and many medical advances for diagnostic and surgical use.
Although some may argue this period is simply a continuation of the second industrial revolution, I disagree as the technological advances that have occurred since 1970 have been nothing short of explosive and are at a completely higher level and rate than those made during the early to mid-20th century.
While the technology developed during the second industrial revolution may have proved the theory and feasibility of the many advances, we now take for granted things such as electric lighting, automobiles, airplanes, and telephones. The third and current industrial revolution largely introduced new ways never before considered to use these technologies.
How Much Is Too Much?
This third industrial revolution is the one where I feel we should take a step back as a society and carefully evaluate and ask ourselves one basic question: How much is too much?
Just how much of our cognitive skills should or are we willing to surrender and turn over to our supposed servants—the machines? Even the use of handheld calculators (yes, they are also machines) has forced us to forego most basic math skills by using a shortcut when a pad and pencil or a few minutes of mental gymnastics might have provided the same answer.
For me, surrendering many of our basic functions to machines could be one step short of surrendering all of them. Most of society has accepted the concept of turning over the functions of complex math, data and word processing, and their associated tasks to computers, which after all, are just another type of machine.
Where Humans Prevail over Machines
However, there is one fundamental difference between the comprehensive ability of a machine and human beings. Humans have complex emotions and feelings and the capacity to express them at different times in response to the stimuli. Better yet, we can use these emotions and feelings to understand and render a decision based on a human—and not mechanical—level.
Most of all, humans have a brain—the most fascinating and complex organ we possess. Although it might fall short of what most computers can now do, I think we still have a pretty good computer ourselves.
The human brain can store trillions of bytes with up to 34 gigabytes of information processed and accepted each day. That’s not too bad for a processor that weighs only 3.3 pounds on average.
The human brain is also able to understand the complexities of a situation and can respond accordingly, whereas machines do not have the capability of cognitive understanding or reasoning. Computers can only provide answers or responses based on the biases, prejudices, experiences, and knowledge of those who programmed them.
Humans can create and invent new items from dreams, concepts, or imagination. In comparison, machines cannot do such types of imaginative work because they use artificial intelligence and lack our creative skills.
Further, humans are blessed with other cognitive skills such as rational thinking, intuition, and comprehension as well as our emotional abilities that include empathy, understanding, and compassion. Machines can only respond to the specific programming instructions inputted into them by humans. Humans also possess the capacity for many other diverse abilities and skills that machines lack such as different languages, recognizing patterns, the power to reason, and creative thinking.
Many programmers will argue with me and state, “But we can now insert special algorithms into computers to mimic human emotions.” Conversely, they’ll add that emotions should not be included in any decision making that involves financial considerations or safety-related issues.
I can agree with this to a point and certainly think machines have benefitted mankind overall. However, I think we have done pretty well for ourselves through the generations in which intuitive thinking and our ability to reason and comprehend were the only tools we had.
Robotic Machines vs. Human Labor
This all brings us back to my original question: How much is too much?
The two principal example arguments I make regarding this question is in our current fascination with robotics and self-driving (autonomous) cars.
The use of robotics is exploding throughout our world. They are now able to mimic many human physical traits. Using robotics to substitute for human repetitive motions or other tedious tasks involving assembly line work in manufacturing facilities is certainly a positive for many individuals who were employed for decades in these industries and had to endure repetitive stress injuries or disabilities.
Of course, the manufacturers revel in the fact that these machines are capable of 24-hours-a-day operation without complaining or stopping for a coffee break. Manufacturers also benefit from the savings in hourly wages, vacation and holiday pay, pensions, and health and welfare insurance.
But does the widening use of robotics really benefit humans? One of the reasons I object to the increase in the use of machines is the impact they have on human beings. After all, humans have a purpose, spirit, and identities. Machines have an electrical connection, grease zerks, and serial numbers.
Machines and technology are rapidly replacing manpower for certain jobs and tasks, which has become a primary cause for rising unemployment in many states with a heavy presence of industrial factories.
As humans are rapidly being replaced by machines, certain jobs are disappearing. Many of the displaced workers are those with decades of experience involving a single trade and who are 40 to 50 years of age, making it hard to find a different profession.
Machine Automation vs. Human Control
My other example is self-driving vehicles. It has long been a human dream to be able to get into a vehicle, program the destination, and sit back and enjoy the ride or take a short nap. And while sitting back is like going somewhere in an airplane, the part that doesn’t apply is there is no human being at the wheel; a machine is controlling your life and continued existence.
It is not hard to imagine countless other self-driving cars on the roads with you and potentially heading for you at a high rate of speed. In fact, the rising incidents of self-driving vehicles plowing into parked cars, running through red lights, and hitting pedestrians crossing the street proves to me that this technology is not ready, and may never be ready, for widespread use.
There are basically too many unknown and unforeseen variables involved with driving a car. Kids dart out in front of you on a bike and baby carriages roll out into the street. School buses stop on roads to pick up or drop off kids. Reckless, drunk, and speeding drivers swerve and pass cars on the right. Disabled vehicles or wrecks occur alongside the roadway.
The processing speed of an onboard computer to send signals through wires to servos simply cannot match the intuitive skills, perception, and reaction and response time of a non-impaired driver behind the wheel.
Many supporters of this technology state the need is because too many people are driving impaired. In my opinion, a better compromise would be the use of breath analyzers interlocked with the vehicle’s ignition to prevent these events. There just must be a better way than turning our lives, our families, and others totally over to a machine.
Surrounded by Machines
It’s not all bad having these machines in our lives. We are surrounded by machines with obvious benefits such as television sets, refrigerators, and home theaters, among others. And with the use of these machines, our lives have become much simpler, and we have been given more leisure time in our crowded lives.
Machines are much faster than humans when it comes to processing information and performing calculations with greater accuracy and speed. Computers have better and larger memory banks and can be rapidly fed with a large amount of information as compared to humans. Machines work effortlessly and more efficiently than humans, and short of a breakdown, can operate continuously.
The products that are built can be produced in larger quantities and at much greater speed with the use of machines. Easy communication is possible from almost anywhere in the world with cellphones. One can travel at super-fast speeds to anywhere in the world with the help of jet aircraft.
Yet while there are countless advantages to machines, they are not without some risk.
As I close, you may choose to agree or disagree with me. You may think I am pressing the panic button prematurely or that it’s not even needed to be pressed at all. That’s okay. My purpose in writing this was to give you a chance to consider my concerns as legitimate, partly valid, or simply hogwash.
After all, that ability to reason is what it is to be a human being and not a machine—and one of the things we do best.
Until next month, work safe and smart.
Ed Butts, PE, CPI, is the chief engineer at 4B Engineering & Consulting, Salem, Oregon. He has more than 40 years of experience in the water well business, specializing in engineering and business management. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.