Business Unusual

The Automation Paradox - automation will make us safer then unsafe

Ask a professional photographer what has harmed good photography and they will likely say automatic camera phones. Not because they can't capture great pictures, but because the quality of the shot hides lack of composition. Smart cameras often have not so smart photographers using it.

If those automatic phone camera settings were to fail, you would probably only take terrible pictures.

Here is another example: lifts once required human operators to manually stop the lift at the designated floor. Now that it is automated, you simply select the floor. If that failed you would not be able to stop the lift on any floor because, not only do we not know how, the controls needed to do so have been removed.

In the two scenarios above, you simply get the camera fixed or press the emergency button and wait for someone to help you. But as automation extends further into our everyday lives the possibility of a system failing increases the odds of putting us in harms way, even though that is exactly what it was designed to avoid.

This is known as the automation paradox.

The plane that could fly itself, crashes.

The worst case scenario for this is Air France Flight 447, an Airbus A330 that crashed killing all on board in 2009. A major contributing factor being the assumption about what the plane automation would control versus the pilots.

The assumption about how the plane would respond in a manual mode led the pilots to respond incorrectly making a dangerous situation a fatal one.

A pilot with no automation assistance would not have made this error.

The extent of the issues have been growing as more functions become suitable for automation, for the most part increasing efficiency and safety, but not completely addressing the impact on the operators that will be be needed to step in should something go wrong.

99% Invisible has a comprehensive two-part podcast on Flight 447 and the the automation concerns for autonomous vehicles.

Lights out Manufacturing

The opposite is also true. Some situations can be so well-controlled that machines are able to do everything. Even the factory lights can be switched off, hence the name. The best known of these are part of the global Fanuc brand, not surprising that a leader in this type of manufacturing make robots for lights out manufacturing. One of their factories can operate without human oversight for as long as a month, operating around the clock.

You might think it is a new innovation but they have been around since the 50s and have slowly been improving their products to the current levels. As of 2015 they have built 400 000 robots and as as many three million machine control units.

Their machines are, right now, building products all round the world including here in South Africa.

Automated manufacturing reduces the need for human labour, but there are significant implications for choosing an automated route.

Robots are not cheap and require significant planning before production can begin. They would also take longer to reconfigure if the product line changed. But robots are better at doing jobs humans are not good at or don’t like doing. The newest versions called collaborative robots are designed to work with human operators performing the heavy lifting or tasks that are very repetitive.

There are significant upsides to automation. We just need to remain aware that it is not a magic fix.


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