"Look, Ma, No Hands!" Oct 13, 2011

by Rick Rader, MD

While I do a lot of writing in airplanes, I'm glad I'm doing this one on terra firma.

Technology has had a revolutionary impact on how we do our jobs. We are more productive, more efficient and more accurate. But not in all areas, safer.

The one area where you would assume technology has provided us with an increased margin of safety is flying. And you would be right...and wrong. Thanks, in part to technology, fatal airline accidents have decreased dramatically over the past decade. But that same technology has created a new fear factor; pilots are forgetting how to handle emergencies.

According to recent research by the Federal Aviation Administration's advisory committee on pilot training, "We're forgetting how to fly."

Over the years, computer controlled flying ("autopilot") has become both ingrained in pilot training and aviation systems design and controls that there is an over reliance on auto-flying with minimal pilot intervention. The fear is that this pilot "automation addiction" has diluted pilot skills especially in the recovery of planes experiencing stalls and other mid-flight problems. There is a new generation of pilots who either don't know how to "recover" or waste too much time trying to re-engage the "auto-pilot" to manage the problem. According to a new report by Joan Lowy of the Associated Press, "The weakened skills have contributed to hundreds of deaths in airline crashes in the last five years." These "loss of control" accidents account for the largest number of plane crashes.

According to the FAA study, "pilots sometimes abdicate too much responsibility to automated systems" and find themselves along for the ride when a computer defaults, initiating a cascade of misadventures that spook the pilots who have been trained to rely on automated systems.

Like I said, I'm glad I'm writing this on terra firma.

As scary as that sounds (and it sounds a lot scarier at 35,000 feet), the over incorporation and reliance on technology hits us all closer to home. Students are not learning how to write due to an emphasis on keyboard use, texting is eroding both our spelling skills and our intolerance of spelling errors, and cell phones no longer require us to remember even basic numbers like our social security numbers or PIN numbers. There are countless reports of drivers following GPS instructions onto train tracks and into lakes. Forget the prospect of learning even simple math when iPhones come with calculators. Computerized prompts let us know of upcoming birthdays, anniversaries and dental appointments; so we can assume that our brain's memory storage region will be relegated to the importance of the appendix. Learn a foreign language? Why bother, "there's an app for that." Did I mention the availability of cars that automatically parallel park while you text your outgoing order at your favorite Indian restaurant. And on the question of pilots not knowing how to fly? Not so far-fetched after all.

For those of us who rejoice in watching and assisting individuals with disabilities acquire new and marketable skills, the idea of losing skills, vital skills due to technology is regrettable. Anyone who knows people, young and old with disabilities, and has witnessed their struggle in learning how to tie their own shoe laces, and do it with pride and joy, would steer them clear of the slip-on shoe aisle.

Anyone who appreciates the hours spent by a Special Olympic athlete in trying to perfect their competitive softball throw would probably pull the plug on a computer pitching simulator.

While no one doubts the contribution of technology in enabling people with disabilities to accomplish many tasks they would be unable to achieve (the technology driven distribution center created by Walgreen's in South Carolina is a perfect example), there is something special about teaching basic skills in natural surroundings.

One thing that technology has not impacted on is the basic human need to be part of something bigger. For many people, that "bigger" is "working." That bigger is being relied upon, being rewarded, being included, being counted....being a "worker." And workers need skills, skills that can be taught by either the seat of the pants or with the assistance of computers, robots or automation. Skills that can be used in bagging groceries, cutting flowers, stocking shelves, ripping tickets, cooking fries, shredding paper or flying planes. Skills that are ready when you need them. Skills like showing up, responsibility, accountability, fortitude, perseverance, cooperation and sharing. Skills that are exhibited daily by people with disabilities. Skills that don't come from a flat screen, an algorithm, or a USB port.

Skills that will insure your safe connection from Atlanta to Boston.

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