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Why Productivity Tools Make You Less Productive … and Less Creative

Even in the age of artificial intelligence, common sense still matters.

Technology addiction is running rampant. We spend more time looking at screens than talking to the people who matter. This digital dependence is impairing our ability to make decisions, because we no longer trust our common sense. The more we rely on technology advances like artificial intelligence and predictable algorithms to make decisions, the more unpredictable we become. No, that’s not counter-intuitive. It’s what happens when human beings stop using our most valuable asset: our brains.

There’s a human factor in every small step and in every decision. Remember the movie Apollo 13 and this quote by NASA flight director, Gene Kranz? “We’ve never lost an American in space; we’re sure as hell not going to lose one on my watch. Failure is not an option.” What happened when their technology failed? NASA engineers huddled in a room under unbelievable time pressure to save their astronauts. They never panicked and never gave up on finding a solution.

Technology is an amazing tool, but humans make the final decisions.

Common Sense Is Becoming Even Less Common

That’s why I resonated with the Verge’s recent post, “Why trying to be too efficient will make us less efficient in the long run.” The article is an interview with Edward Tenner, author of The Efficiency Paradox: What Big Data Can’t Do.

Tenner explains how efficiency technology and artificial intelligence can make us less efficient and less intelligent. He writes:

There are two factors that are underestimated by people and that are serious issues in the application of efficient technology. One of them is what’s called “local knowledge.” All of us know that there’s some route that might look really great on a map, but we know it’s a problem because we’ve traveled over it. For example, there’s an intersection that looks like the shortest way, but I know the traffic is tied up there, and it’s quicker to take a longer way, and [traffic app] Waze hasn’t done this. Every once in a while, Waze points out a really crazy direction, and if people don’t have common sense, sooner or later they will be very disappointed. Since I’ve come to recognize Waze is not infallible, I use it, and if I see there’s something that’s not right, I try to pull over and take a look at a printed map and figure out what’s going wrong.

The other is tacit knowledge. The idea is that no matter how much information you feed into an intelligent system, there are many, many things that are tacit, meaning that they are not explicitly stated anywhere. You can’t find that information in an encyclopedia.

One example is how little children can understand the meaning of a proverb — like “a stitch in time saves nine” or “a rolling stone gathers no moss” — in a way that a computer can’t. There are many things that even little children can appreciate that the most advanced technologies of machine learning can’t, and I think that to me is one of the most exciting things about the mind and about being human.

(Read the rest of the interview with Tenner.)

Data Isn’t Everything—Trust Your Instincts

Machines are smart, and they’re certainly better than us at math. But predictive analytics can’t predict everything.

Tenner also discusses why rule-breaking events have been breakthroughs and made life exciting. For example, just consider all the surprise hit films and the supposed blockbusters that flopped, disappointments from ball players whose prowess had been analyzed down to the second, actors described as second-rate until they got the role of a lifetime, job applicants you turned down who became successful entrepreneurs, and college drop-outs who became billionaires.

The moral of the story? As Tenner puts it, “Don’t be afraid of your common sense.”


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