BHP Team

Note from the BHP Team: This month’s Big Question article, “Is It Human to Automate?” by zoologist Antone Martinho-Truswell, proposes that automation is a defining characteristic of our species. (In other words, those robots we’re all dreaming about to clean our houses? Other animals aren’t thinking about how to make this happen.) How has automation shaped history? Where is it taking us? Is automation just a human thing? A perfect match for Unit 9: Acceleration (which comes with a healthy dose of globalization and technological innovation). The BHP teachers below have shared their thoughts on this article in Yammer. Will you join the conversation?

This makes me think of the relationship between automation and a rise in minimum wage. I wonder if there is a way to gather a few different articles and have students explore the claim that automation is a response to rising wages and this claim that it is human nature to automate. Think of it as a different version of the nurture or nature debate.

Brian Moore, BHP Teacher, Grade 9
Connecticut, USA


I really like this article and think it would be great to give it to students. I think it would generate some very lively discussion…

… I see a great analogy here between how automation has changed the way modern humans live and the way that slaves changed the way people lived and worked in societies in the ancient world. Slavery in many places freed slave owners up to do other tasks. It illustrates Martinho-Truswell’s point in the second-to-last paragraph about the human drive to “export tasks.” Martinho-Truswell argues that modern humans export tasks to machines; in the ancient world, people exported those tasks to slaves…

There are many ways that exporting tasks to machines is different from exporting them to other humans, and I really like the way that Martinho-Truswell describes these differences in his article. But in the way that slavery allowed slave owners to reduce the time spent on onerous tasks and freed them up to focus on more “creative and lucrative forms of activity,” does not seem to me any different from the drive to export tasks that Martinho-Truswell sees in automation. I think this underscores the fact that this drive is not something new for humans, though the means for carrying it out might be different.

How to incorporate this into the BHP curriculum? First, ask students if, based on what they learned in Investigation 6 [How does language make humans different?], they agree with Martinho-Truswell’s assessment of human language. Second, ask students to brainstorm other examples from human history in which humans have “exported tasks.” How are the examples similar and/or different?

David Burzillo, BHP Teacher, Grades 11 and 12
Massachusetts, USA


@DavidBurzillo, I love your argument and the task you have suggested for how to incorporate this article into BHP. I want to expand on the idea of “exporting tasks.” First, it might not be the idea of “automation” that makes us different from other species, but instead the ability to “export tasks.” The ability to export tasks really begins with Threshold 7 and the development of agriculture. Looking at various ancient civilizations, whether China, Greece, or Rome, for example, we see a movement over time tying food-producing social classes to the land in a permanent way as a means to further support classes doing other jobs (thinking about the Colonus tenant farmers of Greece and Rome that would eventually become the serfs of the middle ages). With the further exporting of human labor to animal labor in the fields, more food was grown to support more people doing jobs other than producing food. If famines loomed, societies that had developed a powerful occupation of warriors because of a thriving food-producing class could expand to take what they needed by force (Rome conquering Egypt). Fast forward to The Modern Revolution], and we see the eventual mechanization of agriculture throughout the world, …producing more food than ever before. Now that much of the population does not have to work in the field of food production (no pun intended), we have freed many more hands and minds up for different tasks. Now that I am thinking about it, I am wondering if we could use the idea of “mini-thresholds” to explain how “exporting tasks” helped lead to Threshold 8 and possibly Threshold 9 (whatever that maybe). Just some ideas that were floating around in my head this morning.

Zachary Cain, BHP Teacher, Grade 6
Illinois, USA


Love it, @ZachCain. Really like what you have to say about the origin of the exportation of tasks, and you also make the great point that workers have exported tasks to animals as well. It might be really valuable to have students research how many people work in agriculture in different countries around the world today. This would highlight how much of the critical work of growing food humans have exported. Students could visit, for example, Hans Rosling’s website One axis of the graph can be agricultural workers. (This is accessed by clicking “economy” and then choosing “employment by sector.”) The really interesting thing about is that his graphs usually show the most “developed” countries in the top right quadrants. In this graph, they are on the bottom right.

David Burzillo, BHP Teacher, Grades 11 and 12
Massachusetts, USA


Great suggestions on this thread… I think this would be a really interesting addition to the document collection in the Investigation 6 library, but I have a feeling that might throw off the research results if we messed with the texts (I could be wrong…). Or, we could have students revise and critically assess their Investigation 6 essays after they’ve written them by having them read this article and questioning their conclusions. The author makes a strong case for the argument that we are not the only ones who can collectively learn, but we are still different from other species in that our collective learning abilities are stronger than other species. This article would also fit well in any of the later units (8 through 10, but particularly 9 and 10). It could complement the Industrial Revolution lesson in Unit 9, as well as thinking about the future and what the next threshold might be (AI). It could also be a part of a causation lesson or CCOT essay. In short, there are a ton of different ways to use this piece.

Bridgette O’Connor, BHP Teacher, Grade 9
Louisiana, USA


Want to throw your thoughts about humans and automation into the mix? Join the conversation on Yammer to share activity ideas with other BHP teachers to bring relevant, new content into your BHP classroom!

Header image: Atlas robot, by Kansas City Star, CC BY-SA 4.0.

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