Technology and the economy of the future

18th November 2011

Humans and technology are an interesting combination. 

Humans are good at finding new ways to do things, inventing.  That's one of the main reasons why we dominate the planet (and risk destroying it and ourselves), we're so good at thinking of new things.

So I like the quote from Brian Appleyard in Prospect "For Britain, as elsewhere, technology will be crucial. ……The next state will-or should be-not a machine dream augmented by humans but a human reality augmented by machines."

We tend to think of technology, be it 3D copying, computing or whatever as something way beyond what humans can do.  But actually there are lots of things that people do far better than technology – the essential problems are getting each to do the right elements in the system and to handle the link between the two, the interface.

This is usually spoken of as "human-machine interaction" or HCI, human-computer interaction. 

David Norman (who is one of my heroes) said that it shouldn't be human-machine interaction, but human-work interaction, with the machine as a possible means to do the work.  That obviously fits in with Appleyard's comment, we want to focus not on the technology as technology, but in terms of what we want to achieve. 

To give an example of "good" HMI, that is intended for a work purpose and uses the technology and the human elements well, think of an aircraft cockpit.  It was (now it is more sophisticated, has more technology, and in some ways has a worse interface) designed so that when all the systems were operating normally, all the needles on dials pointed the same way. 

Humans have the ability, called cognitive pop-out, to detect breaks in patterns.  Go into a room with blue dots on the wallpaper and if there is a red dot somewhere, you'll see it.

Whether you can fly a plane or not, go into a cockpit with needles that generally point one way and one that points in a different direction and your eye will be drawn to it. 

That system uses the technology and the human system well to achieve the objective, flying the plane safely.  You can't turn off the human system and you don't need to pre-programme it.  It isn't unknown for the technology to break down because something wasn't anticipated (the space shuttle, Apollo 13 etc.) or for the system to be turned off (for example, when an unusually tall crew member knocked off a system that was supposed to be impossible to turn off accidentally).

Take an example of the opposite, where the technology is very clever, but doesn't integrate with the human ability. 

Accounting is difficult for most humans.  You enter credits and debits in what seem the wrong places intuitively, and people aren't very good at entering and adding lots of figures without error.  So we invented double entry bookkeeping.  If your two columns don't add up, you've made a mistake and check it. 

When we got computers, it seemed like a good idea to automate bookkeeping, because a computer doesn't make simple arithmetic errors. 

So when these systems were automated, the first systems automated double entry.

But the whole point of double entry is to make up for the human failing of not being faultless with addition, while computers don't make those sort of mistakes.  Meanwhile, the counter intuitive element of putting the credits and debits in the right places and categorising things correctly is still left to the human. 

Systems have got much better, now you can simply tell the computer you've got a cheque to pay in or a bill to pay, and a good system will put the entries in the right place and add the figures up for you. 

They can even give you graphical information.  People are good at noticing patters and our vision is our dominant sense.  If you have pictures, then instead of the Board meeting being three hours of the FD explaining to the non-accounting literate members what the numbers mean, they spend the time discussing the trends, margins etc. that they all understand because they can see them pictorially and have an intuitive grasp that they don't have with numbers.  The people can see the patterns, trends and implications in the pictures in a way that computers can't.

So the challenge of future technology to make it a useful part of the economy isn't the technology, it is working out what we actually want to do, and then deciding when and how technology might improve on what humans can do themselves. 

And part of the challenge, that Martin Sorrell, quoted in the Prospect article, identified, is education.

The issue is that the education, whether aimed at children or adults, always tends to be about the technology itself.  That's important, obviously.  It's fine saying that we can do just about anything technologically, but we do need people who can do it.  But one trouble with the "teach technology" approach is that the speed of development means that your knowledge gets obsolete really quickly unless you are always updating it.

What we need is to educate everybody, children, scientists, politicians, everybody to think in terms of "what would it be really useful to do" – to start with the work, with what we want to achieve, not start with the technology and see if we can find a use for it, because the use we find for it might not be that useful and might actually be less useful than what we have already.  That's not necessarily a solid base for an economic miracle.

More on Mindful Money

Vision for Britain: The future of the UK economy

The Innovation Revolution?

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