What can people do better than machines? The view from 1951

Image from Paul Fitts' paper on huma machine differences

What can humans do that machines can’t? The pessimistic view, in a world of advancing AI and robotics, would be “less and less every day”. While researching this today I ran into an interesting historical perspective — the view from 1951.

It’s a paper called “Human Engineering for an Effective Air Navigation and Traffic Control System,” written for the National Security Council by Paul Fitts, a psychologist known for studying human factors in technology. He was most famous for his work trying to figure out how to automate air travel to make it more safe, and that’s where this report comes in. It’s a long, elegantly-written attempt to tease out the distinctions: Which aspects of airflight could best be managed by machines, and what by humans?

The fun begins on page 6, where Fitts asks …

Callout from Paul Fitt's paper: what can man do better than machines

He argues that our “sensory functions” and “perceptual abilities” are more sensitive than machines — which is arguably less true today than it was back then, given innovations in everything from LIDAR and 3D imaging to olfaction. He also argues we meatfolk have the edge on “reasoning” — which, again, is certainly true but probably much less true than in 1951, when it was considered pretty rad to get a vacuum-tube computer to play a simple peg game.

But then Fitts points out a unique human cognitive advantage: “Flexibility”.Flexibility. Another special Capacity of the human is his extraordinary flexibility and ability to improvise. These abilities are still in completely understood by psychologists, but they represent important respects in which humans surpass machines. The amount of flexibility a machine has is fixed by the amount that was built into it. The machine will attempt as many different kinds of solutions as it's designer plan for and no more. Experiments on complex problem-solving and humans, on the other hand, show that humans may attempt many different solutions to the same problem – just think of the number of ways in which this paragraph could've been written to convey essentially the same point. Flexibility is especially important in the changing and evolving system, such as one in which new techniques are constantly coming into use. It also provides insurance against complete breakdown in emergencies. The conclusion here is that if flexibility in the system is important, it probably is a good plan to let human beings play an important role in the system.

Now, this distinction seems still very solid! AI and robotics are remarkably more advanced than in 1951, but even the most advanced machine is still pretty narrow in its function. “General” AI is still nowhere in sight, and robots are still simply terrible at navigating and manipulating the everyday human environment: Google’s Go-playing computer creamed the world’s champion at that game, but it couldn’t pick up the game pieces by itself. In any individual intellectual and physical skill, you could create (or soon create) a machine that would best us, probably. But human ability to adapt to new situations and tasks makes us the cognitive Swiss Army knife in this corner of the universe.

(We could extend Fitt’s list by adding a bunch of areas in which humans still trounce machines, by the way — like empathy and creativity. Fitts didn’t include these, possibly because he didn’t see them as related to airflight control, though I could make the case they’re necessary in that field.)

This point about flexibility reminds me of Robert Heinlein’s dictum:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

If I’d written that list I’d probably have included a bit less fighting and invasion-planning, but otherwise it’s a pretty solid CV. Of those twenty-one skills, though, I’m only confident of my ability in fifteen.

Go download that whole paper by Fitts — it’s a fun read! (That awesome image at the top of this post is from the paper, BTW.)

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8 thoughts on “What can people do better than machines? The view from 1951

  1. Mahnaz Aeinehchi

    My apologies for the typo in my previous post! If I was a robot, probably I wouldn’t be able to recognize my typo.
    I correct my mistake and typo as: I’d have included ‘be leader’, ‘love others’ and ‘ make a decision under cinditions of risk and uncertainty’. Thanks for reading!

    Reply
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