Open the Pea Pod Bay Doors, HAL

On 12th May 2015 an Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia. Eight passengers lost their lives. Most of the other passengers were injured. As the details of the crash spread through news channels, many reports featured discussions of an automated system known as Positive Train Control (PTC) which, it is believed, would have prevented the accident had it been in use on that stretch of Amtrak’s route.

It is reasonable to believe that with PTC been in place the accident might not have happened. Still, thousands of trains, driven by hundreds of engineers, have safely negotiated that curve without PTC or anything like it. The engineer involved in the accident himself was fully capable of safely negotiating that curve.

At the time that the details of this accident were becoming public knowledge I also happened to be reading Nicholas Carr’s The Glass Cage: Automation and Us. A few hours spent reading that book and his earlier work, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains are hours well spent.

Although it is wise to read his work with one’s critical thinking skills engaged, Nicholas Carr is not a 21st-century Luddite. He would observe that both the Internet and automation have tremendous value from which he and we benefit every day. Nonetheless he does question the value of automation in certain specific applications, such as autopilot systems on commercial aircraft, driverless cars, electronic medical records and diagnostic systems, and GPS systems.

Carr begins The Glass Cage by citing an FAA SAFO, or Safety Alert For Operators, issued on 4th January 2013: “This SAFO encourages operators to promote manual flight operations when appropriate.” In other words, commercial pilots should be encouraged to switch off the autopilot system from time to time to maintain their skill in responding to changing flying conditions.

He cites examples such as the crash of Continental Airlines Flight 3407 in Buffalo in 2009 and the introduction of GPS navigation among the Inuit residents of Igloolik Island in far northern Canada to support the argument that heavy or total reliance on automation is not necessarily a good thing.

In the chapter on GPS systems he cites research in neuroscience that suggests exercising the areas of the brain involved in navigation is critical in maintaining the ability to remember things in general. “It may well be that the brain’s navigational sense—its ancient, intricate way of plotting and recording movement through space—is the evolutionary font of all memory.” One neuroscientist he cites even suggests that letting the brain’s navigation center atrophy could result in a “general loss of memory and a growing risk of dementia.”

As an editor and a wannabe writer I rely on automation and digital technologies, including the on-line Merriam-Webster dictionary, search engines, and sophisticated  word-processing software. For all of their power, however, digital technologies can’t replace the very basic knowledge and skills that help me correct poor syntax, recognize when “form” has been typed when “from” is needed, or write a cohesive and coherent paragraph.

As a hobbyist gardener I also rely on digital technology to help with some things, such as figuring out why my dieffenbachia plant is failing, researching recipes that make use of garlic scapes, or deciding what native plants to include in my garden plans to attract pollinators. However, even though it might be possible to build a robotic system to till the soil in the spring, turn in the compost in the fall, or pull out the sorrel and lamb’s quarter in the summer, those are still tasks that will be done manually, with tools powered by carbohydrates and not hydrocarbons, in our garden.

squash plant and garden trowel
A manual planting device and an analog squash plant.

Concluding his discourse on automation, Nicholas Carr turns to Robert Frost. Quoting the next to last line of “Mowing,” Carr observes “Labor, whether of the body or of the mind, is more than a way of getting things done. It’s a form of contemplation, a way of seeing the world face to face rather than through a glass [as in a glass cage].”

 I am encouraged that among the readers of these posts are people who enjoy physical activity and some forms of manual labor. They know that they need to put away the keyboard and screen, the tablet, or the smart phone, if only for a few minutes, and go out and dig in the dirt, look for the bugs and the birds, or follow the red blazes to the summit. Best wishes to all of you for an active, healthy, productive summer 2015.

Thanks as always for stopping by.

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2 thoughts on “Open the Pea Pod Bay Doors, HAL

  1. Andrew Walsh 4 June, 2015 / 9:34 pm

    Interesting idea about navigational skill being critical for general memory. One of the oldest and most popular techniques for memorizing arbitrary information is to construct a mental 3D space containing that information, or associated visual elements. Recall is then a process of mentally walking around the space.

    This is supposedly how classical orators like Seneca memorized long speeches. It’s the idea behind Sherlock Holmes’ mind palace on the BBC show. And it’s how memory champs memorize things likes the order of playing cards in a shuffled deck.

    These techniques all require deliberate, conscious effort. But it sounds like perhaps this is related to what our brain does automatically at a more fundamental level.

    • jerseybackyard 4 June, 2015 / 9:55 pm

      The evolutionary aspect is interesting. I remember observing that squirrels were able to locate caches of acorns buried in the snow, and then I found a paper from a study that suggested the squirrels remembered the location of the cache and weren’t smelling the acorns through the snow. It makes sense that skills needed for survival, such as locating the sources of food and water, depend on spacial reasoning.

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