Ironies of Automation (1983)
The classic aim of automation is to replace human manual control, planning and problem solving by automatic devices and computers. However, as Bibby and colleagues (1975) point out : "even highly automated systems. such as electric power networks, need human beings for supervision, adjustment, maintenance, expansion and improvement. Therefore one can draw the paradoxical conclusion that automated systems still are man-machine systems, for which both technical and human factors are important." This paper suggests that the increased interest in human factors among engineers reflects the irony that the more advanced a control system is, so the more crucial may be the contribution of the human operator.

1. Introduction

The important ironies of the classic approach to automation lie in the expectations of the system designers, and in the nature of the tasks left for the human operators to carry out.

The designer’s view of the human operator may be that the operator is unreliable and inefficient. so should be eliminated from the system. There are two ironies of this attitude. One is that designer errors can be a major source of operating problems. Unfortunately people who have collected data on this are reluctant to publish them, as the actual figures are difficult to interpret. (Some types of error may be reported more readily than others, and there may be disagreement about their origin.) The second irony is that the designer who tries to eliminate the operator still leaves the operator to do the tasks which the designer cannot think how to automate. It is this approach which causes the problems to be discussed here, as it means that the operator can be left with an arbitrary collection of tasks, and little thought may have been given to providing support for them.

1.1. Tasks after automation.
There are two general categories of task left for an operator in an automated system. He may be expected to monitor that the automatic system is operating correctly, and if it is not he may be expected to call a more experienced operator or to takeover himself. We will discuss the ironies of manual takeover first, as the points made also have implications for monitoring. To take over and stabilize the process requires manual control skills, to diagnose the fault as a basis for shut down or recovery requires cognitive skills.

1.1.1.Manual control skills. Several studies (Edwards and Lees, 1974) have shown the difference between inexperienced and experienced process operators making a step change. The experienced operator makes the minimum number of actions, and the process output moves smoothly and quickly to the new level, while with an inexperienced operator it oscillates round the target value. Unfortunately, physical skills deteriorate when they are not used, particularly the refinements of gain and timing. This means that a formerly experienced operator who has been monitoring an automated process may now be an inexperienced one. If he takes over he may set the process into oscillation. He may have to wait for feedback, rather than controlling by open-loop, and it will be difficult for him to interpret whether the feedback shows that there is something wrong with the system or more simply that he has misjudged his control action. He will need to make actions to counteract his ineffective control, which will add to his work load. When manual takeover is needed there is likely to be something wrong with the process, so that unusual actions will be needed to control it, and one can argue that the operator needs to be more rather than less skilled, and less rather than more loaded, than average.