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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Alert24 - Safeguard Update

Automation and us

Automation and us
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New Zealand

The sci-fi scenario of robots taking control is getting closer, with the aviation industry already using some automation that cannot be manually overridden, a professor of industrial engineering told Conferenz’ Safety 360 conference in Auckland last month.

Dr Joel M. Haight, director of the safety engineering programme at the University of Pittsburgh, urged delegates to “become students” of technological change, keeping themselves abreast of what is going on.

As yet, he said, very few autonomous procedures can be performed entirely without human assistance, yet there is a growing belief that automated systems are safer than manual ones. However he pointed to a recent fatal accident involving an Uber self-driving car as an example of what can go wrong when people relinquish control to automation.

“The driver [of the automated car] was behind the wheel, head down, looking at what is suggested to have been his cellphone, when a woman came out into the intersection walking her bicycle. The Uber car smacked into her and killed her.”

While such incidents generate resistance to automation, Haight said the real problem was not the car itself but the failure to successfully blend the human and machine interactions.

“We can’t just say, as that driver did, ‘I’m going to give it up to the vehicle and pay attention to something else.’ If we do that the movement to automation is going to get us into big trouble.”

There are, he said, two very different conversations going on around technology, with designers, engineers and software developers focusing on the function of automation, and psychologists and ergonomists looking at where the human sits in an automated system.

“[The two groups] speak different languages, so we have to have somebody in the middle who can translate for both. There are a whole lot of aspects of the human input that don’t even get considered as software and hardware is being built – and that’s where you guys [health and safety leaders] come in.

“You can be that interpreter, that part of the organisation that talks about what needs to be considered when the human operator is integrated into the process.”

One key problem with automation, he said, is that there are always some things that automated systems can’t deal with, and in these situations manual procedures are expected to step in.

“As long as the move to automation has been happening the human has been left to pick up the pieces of the things that don’t get accomplished or can’t be automated, and that leaves us in a very tough spot.”

Another concern is that over-reliance on automation is known to reduce human capabilities, as revealed in a 2013 FAA study which found pilots have become so reliant on automation they are no longer so capable of handling an interrupted landing.

“I have pilots telling me there are parts of the process where they can’t take control back once the automation is running. That’s scary, when you have someone who is trained and experienced to do what is necessary, and a computer that may not have been programmed to deal with the situation that’s arisen.”

Haight compared this increasing reliance on automation to the 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which an on-board computer takes control of a space ship. “That’s where we’re going if this [trend] is allowed to continue – automated to death!”

A better solution, he said, is the concept of adaptive automation, in which humans and machines communicate with each other to carry out tasks in ways that maximise the capabilities of both.

“The more advanced automation becomes, the more humans are going to have to become engaged with it.

“I think that’s a message for all of us. We have to improve our technological skills, to learn what it takes to design and build an automated system, and contribute to how it responds to situations – because if a situation comes up and there isn’t a code for it, we’re done.

“However if we can integrate and share some of the role, then we’re going to be in a much better situation for overall system performance.”



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