This is our second post on our “throwback” series. In this paper, I will take you through an article written by the best in the human factors and ergonomics field, the late Raja Parasuraman, Tom Sheridan, and Chris Wickens. Though several authors have introduced the concept of automation being implemented at various levels, for me this article nailed it.
My third job (in addition to being a professor, and curating this blog) is working on another blog with Arathi Sethumadhavan focused on the social science of autonomy and automation. You can find us over here.
Occasionally, I will cross-post items that might be of interest to both readerships. Over there, we’re starting a new series of posts called Throwback Thursdays where we go back in time to review some seminal papers in the history of human-automation interaction (HAI), but for a lay audience.
The first post discusses Bainbridge’s 1983 paper discussing the “Ironies of Automation”:
Don’t worry, our Throwback Thursday doesn’t involve embarrassing pictures of me or Arathi from 5 years ago. Instead, it is more cerebral. The social science behind automation and autonomy is long and rich, and despite being one of the earliest topics of study in engineering psychology, it has even more relevance today.
In this aptly titled paper, Bainbridge discusses, back in 1983(!), the ironic things that can happen when humans interact with automation. The words of this paper ring especially true today when the design strategy of some companies is to consider the human as an error term to be eliminated
I chose a provocative title for this post after reading the report on what caused the wreck of the USS John McCain in August of 2017. A summary of the accident is that the USS John McCain was in high-traffic waters when they believed they lost control of steering the ship. Despite attempts to slow or maneuver, it was hit by another large vessel. The bodies of 10 sailors were eventually recovered and five others suffered injury.
Today marks the final report on the accident released by the Navy. After reading it, it seems to me the report blames the crew. Here are some quotes from the offical Naval report:
- Loss of situational awareness in response to mistakes in the operation of the JOHN S MCCAIN’s steering and propulsion system, while in the presence of a high density of maritime traffic
- Failure to follow the International Nautical Rules of the Road, a system of rules to govern the maneuvering of vessels when risk of collision is present
- Watchstanders operating the JOHN S MCCAIN’s steering and propulsion systems had insufficient proficiency and knowledge of the systems
And a rather devestating:
In the Navy, the responsibility of the Commanding Officer for his or her ship is absolute. Many of the decisions made that led to this incident were the result of poor judgment and decision making of the Commanding Officer. That said, no single person bears full responsibility for this incident. The crew was unprepared for the situation in which they found themselves through a lack of preparation, ineffective command and control and deficiencies in training and preparations for navigation.
Ars Technica called my attention to an important but not specifically called out reason for the accident: the poor feedback design of the control system. I think it is a problem that the report focused on “failures” of the people involved, not the design of the machines and systems they used. After my reading, I would summarize the reason for the accident as “The ship could be controlled from many locations. This control was transferred using a computer interface. That interface did not give sufficient information about its current state or feedback about what station controlled what functions of the ship. This made the crew think they had lost steering control when actually that control had just been moved to another location.” I based this on information from the report, including:
Steering was never physically lost. Rather, it had been shifted to a different control station and watchstanders failed to recognize this configuration. Complicating this, the steering control transfer to the Lee Helm caused the rudder to go amidships (centerline). Since the Helmsman had been steering 1-4 degrees of right rudder to maintain course before the transfer, the amidships rudder deviated the ship’s course to the left.
Even this section calls out the “failure to recognize this configuration.” If the system is designed well, one shouldn’t have to expend any cognitive or physical resources to know from where the ship is being controlled.
Overall I was surprised at the tone of this report regarding crew performance. Perhaps some is deserved, but without a hard look at the systems the crew use, I don’t have much faith we can avoid future accidents. Fitts and Jones were the start of the human factors field in 1947, when they insisted that the design of the cockpit created accident-prone situations. This went against the beliefs of the times, which was that “pilot error” was the main factor. This ushered in a new era, one where we try to improve the systems people must use as well as their training and decision making. The picture below is of the interface of the USS John S McCain, commissioned in 1994. I would be very interested to see how it appears in action.
The American Psychological Association’s member magazine, the Monitor, recently highlighted 10 trends in 2018. One of those trends is that Applied Psychology is hot!
In this special APA Monitor report, “10 Trends to Watch in Psychology,” we explore how several far-reaching developments in psychology are transforming the field and society at large.
Our own Anne Mclaughlin, along with other prominent academics and industry applied psychologists were quoted in the article:
As technology changes the way we work, play, travel and think, applied psychologists who understand technology are more sought after than ever, says Anne McLaughlin, PhD, a professor of human factors and applied cognition in the department of psychology at North Carolina State University and past president of APA’s Div. 21 (Applied Experimental and Engineering Psychology).
Also quoted was Arathi Sethumadhavan:
Human factors psychologist Arathi Sethumadhavan, PhD, has found almost limitless opportunities in the health-care field since finishing her graduate degree in 2009. Though her background was in aviation, she found her human factors skills transferred easily to the medical sector—and those skills have been in demand.
One more thing…
Arathi and I have recently started a new blog, Human-Autonomy Sciences, devoted to the psychology of human-autonomy interaction. We hope you visit it and contribute to the discussion!