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Living on autopilot

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Living on autopilot.

I've spent many hours in the air over the last month in a quest to maximise sunshine hours on my holiday break. I found each flight supremely relaxing, partly because I was in holiday mode and partly because I tend not to give much thought to the dangers of flying, what with modern airline technology and all.

My complacency disappeared abruptly when I read an article (just before my flight home) about an over-reliance on autopilot technology dulling the skill levels of American pilots.

The article quoted a letter from the head of the US Department of Transportation to the Federal Aviation Administration, expressing concern the FAA did not know how many pilots were capable of flying a plane manually if the autopilot failed.

It noted that, while automation technology has for a long time been used safely to improve efficiency and reduce pilot workload, several recent accidents have shown pilots who typically fly with automation can make errors when confronted with an unexpected event or when transitioning to manual flying.

The report listed four air accidents resulting in a total 443 deaths where the crews' reliance on automation was a contributing factor.

The autopilot was developed in 1912 and today allows planes to virtually fly themselves, with manual intervention from pilots only required during take-off and landing. While the autopilot enables hands-free flying, the report suggested pilots often need to fly manually so they remember how to think and react to unusual circumstances.

Similar risks exist in many aspects of our lives; we have become so reliant on technology we no longer think for ourselves. Of course these risks are nowhere near the same scale nor importance as airline accidents but our reliance on technology has consequences nevertheless.

How many of us would struggle to remember a phone number in an emergency because we rely on our cellphone contact list? And what about navigating around cities or countries without a GPS?

I suspect many would struggle to add or multiply a series of numbers without a calculator. As for our ability to communicate, I see evidence every day of the crime committed against spelling and grammar by modern tools such as texting and instant messaging.

In my industry, I have seen the creep of automation and its impact on investor decision-making. Numerous products and services offer a form of autopilot investing — the idea that you can set and forget and somebody else will do the navigating and guide you to your investment destination.

It is far easier to enter information into a website than to talk to someone. And a computer-generated investment recommendation somehow feels more authoritative than a human one.

Automated investment recommendations are all well and good ... until something unusual happens, like a sudden change in your circumstances or the occasional financial crisis. It's at these times, when the autopilot screen goes black, you need to remember how to think and react appropriately or talk to someone who can.

The technology tools at our disposal make life easy. They are easy on the brain, easy on our memory and easy on our effort. Why try or think when we don't have to?

But, as the FAA letter suggested, regardless of the tools available to live life hands-free, we still need to be able to think and act appropriately in the event of unusual circumstances or situations.

Our brains still have a role to play — and they may just save our financial lives.

 

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