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.
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!
The original Bladerunner is my favorite movie and can be credited as sparking my interest in human-technology/human-autonomy interactions. The sequel is fantastic if you have not seen it (I’ve seen it twice already and soon a third).
If you’ve seen the original or sequel, the representations of incidental technologies may have seemed unusual. For example, the technologies feel like a strange hybrid of digital/analog systems, they are mostly voice controlled, and the hardware and software has a well-worn look. Machines also make satisfying noises as they are working (also present in the sequel). This is a refreshing contrast to the super clean, touch-based, transparent augmented reality displays shown in other movies.
The article suggests that the team really thought deeply about how to portray technology and UI by thinking about the fundamentals (I would love to have this job):
Blade Runner 2049 was challenging because it required Territory to think about complete systems. They were envisioning not only screens, but the machines and parts that would made them work.
With this in mind, the team considered a range of alternate display technologies. They included e-ink screens, which use tiny microcapsules filled with positive and negatively charged particles, and microfiche sheets, an old analog format used by libraries and other archival institutions to preserve old paper documents.
Anne’s research on attention and rock climbing was recently featured in an article in Outside Magazine:
To trad climb is to be faced with hundreds of such split-second micro decisions, the consequences of which can be fatal. That emphasis on human judgment and its fallibility intrigued Anne McLaughlin, a psychology professor at North Carolina State University. An attention and behavior researcher, she set out to model how and why rock climbers make decisions, and she’d recruited Weil and 31 other trad climbers to contribute data to the project.
The idea for the study first came about at the crag. In 2011, McLaughlin, Chris Wickens, a psychology professor at Colorado State University, and John Keller, an engineer at Alion Science and Technology, converged in Las Vegas for the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society conference, an annual event that brings together various professionals practicing user-focused product design. With Red Rocks just a few minutes away, the three avid climbers were eager to get some time on the rock before the day’s sessions, says Keller, even if it meant starting at 3 a.m.
Tesla has a feature called Autopilot that assists the driver without being completely autonomous. Autopilot includes car-controlled actions such as collision warnings, automatic emergency braking, and automatic lane keeping. Tesla classifies the Autopilot features as Level 2 automation. (Level 5 is considered fully autonomous). Rich has already given our thoughts about calling this Autopilot in a previous post. One particular feature is called AutoSteer, described in the NHTSA report as:
The Tesla Autosteer system uses information from the forward-looking camera, the radar sensor, and the ultrasonic sensors, to detect lane markings and the presence of vehicles and objects to provide automated lane-centering steering control based on the lane markings and the vehicle directly in front of the Tesla, if present. The Tesla owner’s manual contains the following warnings: 1) “Autosteer is intended for use only on highways and limited-access roads with a fully attentive driver. When using Autosteer, hold the steering wheel and be mindful of road conditions and surrounding traffic. Do not use Autosteer on city streets, in construction zones, or in areas where bicyclists or pedestrians may be present. Never depend on Autosteer to determine an appropriate driving path. Always be prepared to take immediate action. Failure to follow these instructions could cause serious property damage, injury or death;” and 2) “Many unforeseen circumstances can impair the operation of Autosteer. Always keep this in mind and remember that as a result, Autosteer may not steer Model S appropriately. Always drive attentively and be prepared to take immediate action.” The system does not prevent operation on any road types.
An NHTSA report looking into a fatal Tesla crash also noted that the introduction of Autosteer corresponded to a 40% reduction in automobile crashes. That’s a lot considering Dr. Gill Pratt from Toyota said he might be happy with a 1% change.
Definitions of autonomy vary. True autonomy is far away. He gives the example of a car performing well on an interstate or in light traffic compared to driving through the center of Rome during rush hour.
Automation will fail. And the less it fails, the less prepared the driver is to assume control.
Emotionally we cannot accept autonomous cars that kill people, even if it reduces overall crash rates and saves lives in the long run.
It is difficult to run simulations with the autonomous cars that capture the extreme variability of the human drivers in other cars.
I’ll leave you with the last paragraph in the interview as a summary:
So to sum this thing up, I think there’s a general desire from the technical people in this field to have both the press and particularly the public better educated about what’s really going on. It’s very easy to get misunderstandings based on words like or phrases like “full autonomy.” What does full actually mean? This actually matters a lot: The idea that only the chauffeur mode of autonomy, where the car drives for you, that that’s the only way to make the car safer and to save lives, that’s just false. And it’s important to not say, “We want to save lives therefore we have to have driverless cars.” In particular, there are tremendous numbers of ways to support a human driver and to give them a kind of blunder prevention device which sits there, inactive most of the time, and every once in a while, will first warn and then, if necessary, intervene and take control. The system doesn’t need to be competent at everything all of the time. It needs to only handle the worst cases.
I took the photo above in my brother-in-laws 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee EcoDiesel. It says “Exhaust Filter Nearing Full Safely Drive at Highway Speeds to Remedy.”
I’d never seen anything like that before neither had he – it seemed like a terrible idea at first. What if the person couldn’t drive at highway speeds right then? Spending an unknown time driving at highway speeds wasting gas also seemed unpleasant. My brother-in-law said that he was having issues with the car before, but it wasn’t until the Jeep downloaded a software update that it displayed this message on the dashboard.
My own car will be 14 years old this year (nearing an age where it can get its own learner’s permit?), so I had to adjust to the idea of a car that updated itself. I was intrigued by the issue and looked around to see what other Jeep owners had to say.
At the dealer a very knowledgeable certified technician explained to me that the problem is that we had been making lots of short trips in town, idling at red lights, with the result that the oil viscosity was now out of spec and that the particulate exhaust filter was nearly full and needed an hour of 75 mph driving to get the temperature high enough to burn off the accumulated particulates. No person and no manual had ever ever mentioned that there is a big problem associated with city driving.
And further down the rabbit hole, I found it wasn’t just the diesel Jeep. This is from a Dodge Ram forum:
I have 10,000K on 2014 Dodge Ram Ecodiesel. Warning came on that exhaust filter 90% full. Safely drive at highway speeds to remedy. Took truck on highway & warning changed to exhaust system regeneration in process. Exhaust filter 90% full.
All warnings went away after 20 miles. What is this all about?
Exhaust Filter XX% Full Safely Drive at Highway Speeds to Remedy — This message will be displayed on the Driver Information Display (DID) if the exhaust particulate filter reaches 80% of its maximum storage capacity. Under conditions of exclusive short duration and low speed driving cycles, your diesel engine and exhaust after-treatment system may never reach the conditions required to cleanse the filter to remove the trapped PM. If this occurs, the “Exhaust Filter XX% Full Safely Drive at Highway Speeds to Remedy” message will be displayed in the DID. If this message is displayed, you will hear one chime to assist in alerting you of this condition. By simply driving your vehicle at highway speeds for up to 20 minutes, you can remedy the condition in the particulate filter system and allow your diesel engine and exhaust after-treatment system to cleanse the filter to remove the trapped PM and restore the system to normal operating condition.
But now that I’ve had time to think about it, I agree with the remedy. After all,my own car just has a ‘check engine’ light no matter what the issue. Twenty minutes on the highway is a lot easier than scheduling a trip to a mechanic.
What could be done better is the communication of the warning. It tells you what to do, and sort of why, but not how long you have to execute the action or the consequences of not acting. The manual contains a better explanation of why (although the 20 minutes there does not match the 60 minute estimate of at least one expert), not that many people read the manual. Also, the manual doesn’t match the message. The manual says you’ll receive a % full, but the message just said “nearly.” The dash display should direct the driver to more information in the manual. Or, with such a modern display, perhaps scroll to reveal more information (showing partial text, so the driver knows to scroll). Knowing the time to act is more critical, and maybe a % would do that since the driver can probably assume he or she can drive closer to 100% before taking action. It looks as though the driver needs to find a way to drive at highway speeds right now, but hopefully that is not the case. I can’t say for sure though, since neither the manual nor the display told me the answer.
I was reading an article on my local news today and saw this graphic, apparently made for the article.
Being from Alabama, and just a pattern-recognition machine in general, I immediately noticed it was an anomaly. The lightest pink surrounded on all sides by the darkest red? Unlikely. The writer helpfully provided a source though, from the FBI, so I could look at the data myself.
There, right at the start, is a footnote for Alabama. It says “3 Limited supplemental homicide data were received.” Illinois is the only other state with a footnote, but because it’s not so different from its neighbors, it didn’t stand out enough for me to notice.
Florida was not contained in the FBI table and thus is grey – a good choice to show there were no data for that state. But as for Alabama and Illinois, it’s misleading to include known bad data in a graph that has no explanations. They should also be grey, rather than imply the limited information is the truth.
I looked up similar data from other sources to check how misleading the graphic was. Because wouldn’t it be nice if my home state had figured out some magic formula for preventing firearm deaths? Unfortunately, The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) statistics on gun deaths put Alabama in the top 4 for the most gun deaths. That’s quite the opposite of the optimism-inducing light pink in the first graphic. The graph below is for 2014 while the first graphic is for 2013, but in case you might be thinking there was some change, I also looked up 2012 (the CDC appears to publish data every two years). The CDC put firearm deaths per person in Alabama even higher that year than in 2014.