The cost of innovation

Innovation is a good thing, right? That’s certainly the message we share with our students. Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths provide the tools to innovate, and we should use these tools to push boundaries and find solutions to everyday problems.

The problem though with innovating is that we are playing the process blind. Just like evolution, we have little idea how new traits or innovations will play out in the future. The combustion engine has produced global warming, pesticides pollute the water and cigarettes cause lung caner. For every innovation or evolution there will be a cost, in terms of technology the cost is probably a human one.  The real challenge therefore facing civilisation is not about deciding how to innovate or what to innovate, instead it’s about deciding what not to innovate and we need to help our students appreciate this difference.

Innovation in action

Take the check-in desk at Heathrow airport I used over Christmas. I  checked in the bag myself, scanned the boarding pass and put the baggage onto the conveyor belt. The process was entirely automated, linked to my iPhone and meant there was no time spent queuing.

But is this really a good consequence of innovation? I imagine it has reduced the wage bill for the airline and it certainly reduced time spent queuing so on the surface, the answer is a definitive yes. But both of these advantages also have human costs.

The human cost

For one thing there are fewer check in staff required. Now, if these machines free people up to do jobs they would rather be doing then great. But who is going to pay for the re-training that is required? I’m worried this falls to no one, and so in a laudable attempt to provide a future opportunity, all we have done is remove an existing one.

We have also removed the opportunity for humans to come together. Humans are a social bunch. I know some of you may question the enjoyment of a check-in desk at 5 am in the morning but remember, interactions work both ways. They give people the opportunity to help others, problem solve, share stories and say good morning. A robot doesn’t need this but I think a human probably does, even if at the time we don’t realise it.

Perhaps these robots give the user, me, more time to do ‘better things’. The problem is these better things often tend to be interacting with other innovations that simply occupy the time I saved: another boxset, another trawl through Facebook, another tweet. Of course I am responsible for making better choices, but I’m not sure it’s fair to ask an alcoholic to sit in a pub and not get drunk. Technology, just like alcohol, is highly addictive and it’s use needs similar regulation.

There is also something here about loss of autonomy: both for the passenger and the check in team. In our drive to create automation through innovation we need to standardise absolutely everything. The check in staff are left to direct people and passengers’ individual needs can’t really be accommodated – we must conform to what the robot needs and so there’s something a little bit ironic here, as the people seem to be serving the needs of the technology.

Robots in the classroom – no thanks

And so to education where everyday I read that robots are going to take over the classroom. Of course this could happen, but this isn’t the right question to ask. The right question is whether we want robots to take over the classroom. For me it’s a no thanks. I’ll explain why in another post, but I’ve got some YouTube videos to watch and an episode of Stranger Things to finish.

Further reading
  • SIBL is a novel pedagogical framework which connects the study of socio-scientific issues, inquiry-based learning and citizen education (