Letting Go of Technochauvinism

This is the first article in the series Co-Opting AI, curated by Mona Sloane.
In my talk for the Co-Opting AI series, I spoke about my book, Artificial Unintelligence: How Computers Misunderstand the World, which looks ...

In my talk for the Co-Opting AI series, I spoke about my book, Artificial Unintelligence: How Computers Misunderstand the World, which looks at the inner workings and outer limits of technology. The talk was part of a book tour that (to my great surprise and delight) has lasted more than a year. During that time, I’ve traveled the world talking to audiences about what AI really is and isn’t. My goal is to empower people around technology, so that we can make better decisions about what we can and should do with machines.

One of the ideas in the book is a kind of bias I call “technochauvinism.” Technochauvinism is the assumption that computers are superior to people, or that a technological solution is superior to any other. Its time has come and gone. Instead, I would argue that we should be asking: “What is the right tool for the task?” Sometimes, the right tool for the task is a computer. Other times, the right tool is a simple board book in the hands of a child sitting on a parent’s lap. One is not better than the other; it’s about context.

As an antidote to technochauvinism, I’d like to offer a collaborative path forward that pairs the best of human effort with the best of machine effort. The basic idea is this: humans plus machines outperform humans alone or machines alone.

Let’s start with a story about teenage me, and my lawn. My parents’ house was a former farmhouse, set on about an acre of land. Starting at age 11, it was my job to cut the grass. We had a small riding mower. I thought this was terrific; it felt like one step away from driving a car. Like many suburban kids, I couldn’t wait to get my driver’s license. In the nice weather, every Saturday found me zipping around the yard cutting the grass on the riding mower. I didn’t like cutting the grass, but I really liked driving the riding mower.

It was an old house with a big yard and built on a hill, so the landscaping was relatively complex. I had to mow an irregularly shaped wide-open space in the back of the house, two formal circular gardens on each side of the house, and a J-shaped patch in the front.

I drove a defined circuit around the landscaping every time. I started in the back yard and did a lap around the perimeter of the wide-open space, to get the edges. The wheels of the tractor left parallel marks around the track. Then, in the next lap, I drove the tractor so that the right front wheel went exactly in the track made by the left wheel on the previous lap. This ensured that the blades cut even rows, and when I looked out the window at the yard after I was done, it made a sort of deconstructed spiral pattern that I liked. My mother, an avid gardener, had designed intricate gardens in the yard’s different microclimates. A few of these gardens featured sharp, 90-degree corners. It looked elegant. However, the turning radius and the blade placement of my riding mower meant that I couldn’t cut a 90-degree corner without driving four feet into the flowerbed. I could cut an arc close to the corner of the flowerbed, but it was a curve, not an angle.

Effective, human-centered design requires the engineer to acknowledge that, sometimes, you’ll have to finish the job by hand if you want it done.

I could have done most of the job with the riding mower, and then I could have gone back and finished the corners with a hand mower so that they were right-angled, not curved. Ralph, the guy who cut the grass before I was 11, did this. In fact, he did the whole lawn with a push mower. Had I been a better person or a better daughter, I would have done it. My mother asked me to do it about a million times. I almost never did it. I could give some excuses (allergies, exhaustion, heatstroke), but I suspect the real reason was that I was a stubborn kid who simply didn’t want to, because I found it unpleasant. I hated the way the grass and sticks blew out of the hand mower and hit me in the legs so that I got welts and hives. I hated the gasoline fumes and the waves of heat that came off the hand mower. I hated that I felt like I was choking the whole time I pushed the hand mower, because I’m allergic to grass. On the riding mower, I was above and in front of the grass-discharge spot. With the hand mower, I was directly behind the grass-discharge spot. The hand mower made me miserable.

My mother eventually gave up and redid the flowerbeds so they were curved instead of angled.

That riding mower is like a computer. My parents bought the riding mower because it was supposed to be a labor-saving device. Instead of hiring Ralph to mow the lawn, they could “hire” me to do the same job at a reduced price. However, the riding mower (which I piloted on the same track every single time, much like a Roomba automated vacuum travels around a room) was built differently than Ralph’s hand mower. It didn’t do the job the same way. Also, the staff was different. Ralph, a professional landscaper, did a professional job. I, the sullen daughter with grass allergies, did an unprofessional job. My mother was forced to decide: Did she want the inexpensive option that used the fancier technology that didn’t do the job she wanted? Or did she want the more expensive option that used the less-fancy technology that did exactly the job she wanted?

My mother was a practical woman who had a lot of children and a lot of gardens, so she opted to make curvilinear garden beds. This is what we end up doing a lot of the time when it comes to automation technology. Automation will handle a lot of the mundane work; it won’t handle the edge cases. The edge cases require hand curation. You need to build in human effort for the edge cases, or they won’t get done.

It’s also important not to expect that the technology will take care of the edge cases. Effective, human-centered design requires the engineer to acknowledge that, sometimes, you’ll have to finish the job by hand if you want it done. An automated phone system will take care of most ordinary problems faced by people calling an airline, for example—but there will always need to be a person answering the phone, because there will always be exceptional cases. Likewise, in a newsroom, automation can be helpful for a vast number of things—but there always needs to be someone answering the phones or looking at the automatically generated stories before they’re published, because technology has its limitations. There are things that a human can see that a machine can’t.

There’s a name for systems like this that include humans: “human-in-the-loop” systems. Human-in-the-loop systems (just as the name suggests) are designed with humans as an integral part of the system. They are distinct from fully autonomous systems, in which a human flips a switch and the machine does all of the work. If we let go of the technochauvinist fantasy of building fully autonomous systems that run forever without any human intervention, it becomes easier to design systems that work within existing social norms. If we give up the idea that it is possible to create a machine that does all the work for us, we can design systems in which the machine does a lot of the work but meaningful human work and meaningful human interaction are prioritized. icon

Featured image: Mindset Reset. Image by Daniel Friedman / Flickr