Can we learn to multitask? (1/26/11)
The brain only does well one task at a time; multitasking is becoming the norm at work and play. The contradiction represented in those two statements is now being played out for keeps in emergency services and the American military. Utilizing large amounts of instantaneous information can save many lives; it can also get innocent people killed.
Throughout the world American soldiers simulteanously listen to perhaps dozens of audio feeds, watch multiple video monitors, and write reports as they try to determine the difference between a truckdriver and a suicide bomber. The soldier’s call their work “Death TV.” If they succeed, they may dramatically impede the progress of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. If they make an error, many civilians can die. That’s what has happened with Predator drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan during the last year.
With those kinds of technology changes, we need to learn what is and what is not possible through multitasking – and learn it quickly.
Too Much Information Too Fast
The problem of multitasking makes severe daily demands on many, especially people like emergency technicians, doctors, and air traffic controllers. Yet it is a near continuous part of military operations, and has been for several thousand years. In battle too much data comes in without sufficient time to process it. Mistakes are often lethal.
The military has and is using this opportunity to study multitasking in severe, real time conditions, and change the way data is used and interpreted. As these are life and death matters, the results will matter both for them and for everyone who multitasks at work.
Though much of this will be handled in-house, some of the research will be done by civilians and published in public journals. Critical questions to consider are:
- Who is good at multitasking? Just as there are pilots who relax and suddenly calm where sensing danger, there seem to be people who perform multitasking better than others. Are these folks long term veterans of video games and other multitasking extravaganzas? (preliminary data, like that of Clifford Nass at Stanford, would argue no.) Are people with ADD, used to doing five things at once, better multitaskers? Are successful multitaskers getting the job done by efficient sequencing, or are they better at appreciating and processing multiple simultaneous stimuli?
- What’s the best way to teach multitasking? Is it simply to try and see who sinks or swims? Or is it better to teach sequential tasking, with programmed periods to appreciate what data matters and what doesn’t?
- Will training in attention, as in mindfulness meditation, make a difference? Preliminary data here are reportedly favorable.
- What are the optimal times for taking physical activity and breaks? “Take breaks or you make mistakes” is a dictum known to psychophysiologic researchers for more than a century. Can people work under emergency conditions for hours without breaks and not make serious errors? The data on medical interns and residents, also afflicted by sleep loss, is certainly cautionary. Of note, operators of predator drones and other “Death TV” technicians are presently working twelve hour shifts.
- How will people rest? Are breaks like sitting and talking with others around the coffee machine fully effective, or will other quick active rest techniques like meditation or self-hypnosis prove helpful?
These questions are not just important to the military. For those who remember the “Flash Crash” on Wall Street some months ago, economic disaster can occur in seconds in a world where major financial decisions are made by thousands of independent software programs. Multitasking is not just about people.
Men and Machines
One does not have to watch the pre-gubernatorial Arnold Schwarzenegger of the “Terminator” movies to recognize that machines are more and more a part of life. Or that more and more, machines make the decisions people formerly made.
Whether it’s air traffic control, deciding what derivatives contract to buy, or determining what is and what is not a fatal cardiac arrhythmia, machines have and will make important decisions. The larger question is when those decisions will be reviewed and countermanded by people.
Circuit breakers to mechanical decisions exist in many different forms, but the problem of when and how to apply them is becoming increasingly acute. When Lehman Brothers blew up, many of the world’s derivatives contracts also blew up – and no one else had the expertise to determine what many of them were worth. Banks no longer knew how much collateral they actually had. Financial markets froze, and worldwide economic cataclysm was only narrowly averted.
Much of critical decision making is very fast. Learning about the limits of multitasking thereby becomes a practical necessity. Particularly for medicine, transport, and the military, multitasking involves when and when not to trust the data and decisions of machines.
We need such answers now.
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