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Whatever Happened to the Human in the Loop?

At various times in the past, people have worried about being replaced by computers, or they have experienced being made “redundant” due to automation.  Robots, transhumanism and the Internet of Things are in the daily news, even though the Jetsons cartoon vision from decades ago has not been realized.

At Work

We remember factory workers at a major automotive company in Detroit tearing up in public because the jobs they had done since college were going away.  This came at a time when they were not yet at retirement age.  It was not their fathers’ or mothers’ experience.

While working on a next generation electric power plant for GE, our design team heard about a nuclear plant overseas that had automated fully.  Then, when the operators needed to take manual control in an emergency, the transition was not at all smooth.  They changed, and adopted a design philosophy going forward to include more human involvement in monitoring, reviewing and taking actions.

A design engineer I know has commented repeatedly that designs that work in computer-generated design packages do not always translate well into the physical world.  Even three-dimensional models and simulations do not guarantee that people and materials will fit and work well together in the real world.  This reminds us of limitations of computers and automation when not verified by humans in the context or ecosystem of use.

On the Water

A few years ago on a long bus trip in Canada, I sat next to a gentleman who trained merchant mariners on large vessels in the Great Lakes.  He talked about training on the ship’s bridge to continue to navigate safely in the rare event that electrical power is lost.  He said that the mariners picked up the paper nautical charts, swallowed hard, and attempted to carry on.  Please hand me the sextant…

On the flip side, this maritime story reminded me of a personal case earlier in which a paper navigational chart blew overboard on a small boat in stormy conditions.  Fortunately, my family was not far from the start of the next chart.  We did not have an electronic backup.  Situations like this make an impression.

In the Air

Last year, my colleague Mary M. Michaels and I visited an impressive FAA facility.  All systems were automated (e.g., air traffic, weather, etc.) with double or triple redundancy.  Still, the supervisor showed us the loose-leaf binders that were still updated with paper copies just in case.

At the Doctor’s Office

In the recent news, two articles caught our attention: one that showed Google Glasses in use in a hospital (see photo) and the second article decrying the continued use of paper because of the complexity of electronic medical records (EMRs).  We wondered: is there room for both Google Glasses and paper, alongside an iPad, smart phone or laptop?

Meanwhile a new design for one’s paper notebook was launched recently by Baron Fig:

On the Road

And a final story…  We purchased an older diesel Mercedes-Benz car from the mid-1990s.  At the repair shop, our mechanic showed us an expensive new model that had been declared as totaled by the insurance company.  The car looked just fine.  However its onboard computer had gotten wet and had not been repaired promptly, and the cost to replace the computer led to the vehicle being considered a total loss. Once again, situations like this make an impression.

Back to the Future

Today, if one does not use a “computer” or “software” for almost everything, one may be considered an anti-technology, techno-phobic Luddite.

Now, there appears to be a sea state change at hand.

At Toyota, human workers are said to be poised to make a comeback.  Given that Toyota was at the forefront of automation, perhaps its change is a harbinger.

Toyota wants to “become more solid and get back to basics,” and “to sharpen our manual skills and further develop them.” Toyota CEO Mitsuru Kawai wants humans to take the place of machines in plants across Japan, so workers can develop new skills and figure out ways to improve production lines and the car-building process.

In a recent post entitled “Japanese Robots in Danger of Being Replaced by Human Workers,” George Dvorsky included this graphic.

Function Allocation in Human Factors Engineering

Function allocation is a classic human factors method for deciding whether a particular function will be accomplished by a person, technology (hardware or software) or some mix of person and technology.

System designers consider error rates, fatigue, costs, hazards, technological feasibility, human values, ethical issues, and the desire of people to perform the function in making the decision.

Before many of us were born (1951), Paul Fitts made a list of what people are good at and what machines are good at.  The FAA still references Fitts today as follows.
Humans appear to surpass present-day machines in:

  1. Ability to detect small amounts of visual or acoustic energy
  2. Ability to perceive patterns of light or sound
  3. Ability to improvise and use flexible procedures
  4. Ability to store very large amounts of information for long periods and to recall relevant facts at the appropriate time
  5. Ability to reason inductively
  6. Ability to exercise judgment

Present-day machines appear to surpass humans in:

  1. Ability to respond quickly to control signals, and to apply great force smoothly and precisely
  2. Ability to perform repetitive, routine tasks
  3. Ability to store information briefly and then to erase it completely
  4. Ability to reason deductively, including computational ability
  5. Ability to handle complex operations, i.e. to do many different things at once

Recently reviewed research (deWinter & Dodou, 2014) found that automation introduces challenges that are not always anticipated by system designers including: complacency, skill degradation, degraded situation awareness, and problems related to reclaiming control.

At HFI, we believe a thoughtful mix and balance of human and machine is a sensible approach to designing most systems.  When these decisions are made early in the design cycle, they are typically easier and less expensive to implement and maintain.

What do you think?


Message from the CEO, Dr. Eric Schaffer — The Pragmatic Ergonomist

Leave a comment here

Reader comments

Monica Granfield


This is an interesting look at the state of HCI in many areas of industry today. One that immediately came to mind for me is flying and pilots. The reason that the pilot Chesley Sullenberger was able to land the plane successfully in the Hudson River was because he had vast hours of flying a plane that was never automated. As we lose these pilots with this skill it concerns and frankly scares me, that new pilots who have not flown planes manually for thousands of hours will have no idea what to do when the computer in a commercial jet fails. What was not in Fitts’ list is the ability to react. Humans can do this, machines cannot. I enjoyed the anecdote about the car. I recently experienced the same thing with a washer machine. The board that runs the machine is pretty much the price of the entire washing machine. So, when it failed after only 4 years!... I bought a manual SpeedQueen, complete with metal gears and knobs you can turn. It has already outlived my fancy intelligent machine that I could program to turn on at any time.... if only it hadn't failed me. Regarding Eric Schaffer's point, addressing the eco-system is absolutely the starting point to address the balance of technology to humans. Now, just to have our message heard.

Mike Goglia


I worry about the skill degradation and degraded situation awareness issues (to which Cathy alludes) as Google et al push their "driverless" cars on the market.


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