On why you have to make your own to-do list, no matter how nice it would seem to get a machine to do it for you
An advertisement for a smartphone app promises that it can make to-do lists "obsolete" and permit its users to "get 25% more done" in a day, all by permitting artificial intelligence to take over where calendars and checklists previously reigned. It's quite the promise -- after all, if a person could extract an extra 25% from an 8-hour working day, that would be like getting a 26-hour clock.
■ It's possible, of course, that certain applications of artificial intelligence really will do quite a lot to increase the productivity of human beings. For example, serious medical journals note that artificial intelligence holds great promise in the field of diagnostic medical imaging, and could very well become a valuable tool in clinical medicine as it can aid doctors with complex patterns.
■ And it turns out that artificial intelligence can be used to serve up chatbots that end up filling in for missing human contacts that people need -- like offering mental-health check-ins. In such a sense, artificial intelligence can certainly help to increase the amount of work done without adding new people, but only up to a point. We can trust computers to do a lot to help us with some routine decision-making, but the marginal and complex situations are where human judgment needs to intervene -- like those where drivers need to know to follow road signs instead of their GPS applications.
■ It's possible that some people may be able to use artificial intelligence tools to plan their days and extract more productivity from them. But those people probably don't deal with complex circumstances -- or a lot of other human beings, for that matter. To know better than the user how to plan the user's day, an app would need not only to know how to rank-order priorities like the user, but also how often to re-order them according to new needs and issues. The app would need to know better than the user how the user's own psychological circadian rhythms normally flow and how and when they might change on the fly. We aren't robots: Biology matters to the quality of our thinking.
■ These are things that it's virtually impossible for an app to "learn" on its own -- especially because to do so accurately requires that the user be sufficiently self-aware to give the app the necessary feedback to say things like "I really regret writing that email yesterday while I was late for lunch, and I should have put it off because now I'm in a fight with my project manager, and it's all because I should have just spent 5 minutes zoning out instead of worrying about my TPS report." A human being can figure that out, if they so choose. It's much harder to convey that to Watson.
■ It's hazardous to expect people to hand over the executive functions of life to machines -- especially if it's done based on promises that "productivity" will be its own reward. Metacognition -- thinking about one's own thinking -- can scarcely be put on autopilot. It is a skill that must be honed through human practice; there's no technological substitute for it. So while it's entirely possible that there are "better mousetraps" to be sold in the world of planners and to-do lists, if an individual isn't already metacognitive enough to adjust their own priorities throughout the day, no app is going to surrogate for that judgment.