The Human/Machine Team: Part 2

In our first post of the year, we discussed one part of the human-machine team, the inherently flexible, adaptable, and powerful human operator. Ignoring the popular media and its leanings towards science fiction – and the views of many in our own industry – we hope to have reinforced the prominence of the human over the machine as we rush headlong into an uncertain future where machines and automation are constantly tasked with roles that were once trusted only to the human operator. We are not refusing to acknowledge the benefits to safety and the expansion of safety margins that carefully integrated technology promises; rather, we are attempting to instill a disciplined approach to the human-machine relationship that demands that this combination work with precision and efficiency.

In 1951, a pioneer of Human Factors, P. M. Fitts, introduced what has come down through over 6 decades to be known as the “Fitts List” – a short categorization of the strengths of both the humans and machines that serves as a very basic framework for allocating tasks and responsibilities between the human and the machine. You can find this discussion on the FAA’s Human Factors site. It’s been enhanced through the years and a recent version looks like this:

Humans Do Better Machines Do Better
Detect small amounts of visual or acoustic energy. Respond quickly to control signals.
Improvise and use flexible procedures. Apply great force smooothly and precisely.
Perceive patterns of light or sound. Perform repetetive, routine tasks.
Store very large amounts of information for long periods and to recall relevant facts at the appropriate time. Store information briefly and then erase it completely.
Reason inductively. Reason deductively, including computational ability.
Excercise judgment. Handle complex operations, i.e. to do many different things at once.

The list isn’t exhaustive or infallible, but it does circumscribe much of the allocation that designers of contemporary aircraft and flight deck technology have designed into the many systems we now operate in aviation. It’s a good place to start in building an understanding of the increasingly blurred boundary between the human operator, and machines and automation. Understanding these concepts will make your interaction with all levels of automation more appropriate and, in the end, more balanced.

Pilots begin to lose control of this relationship when through complacency, misunderstanding, or in an inappropriate effort to reduce workload, they invoke automation to perform where the human operator would be more effective. The art and science of 21st-Century airmanship requires pilots to constantly consider the ways in which they interact with the automated systems on their aircraft, constantly refreshing the skills and abilities which set them apart from the automation, while knowingly delegating appropriate tasks to the automation (and keeping track of the delegated task).

In his article “The Great Forgetting,” in the November 2013 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Nicholas Carr grapples with the human-machine relationship. Carr writes that:

“…automation, for all its benefits, can take a toll on the performance and talents of those who rely on it. The implications go well beyond safety. Because automation alters how we act, how we learn, and what we know, it has an ethical dimension. The choices we make, or fail to make, about which tasks we hand off to machines shape our lives and the place we make for ourselves in the world.”

Take a few minutes to consider how well you understand the strengths of each member of the human-machine team, and then set out to improve your own understanding, even further, by deepening the knowledge of the systems you interact with on a routine basis. Developing a principled and disciplined approach to all that we do when interacting with contemporary aviation systems is the key to expanding safety margins and capturing the benefits that technology promises.

We think it will also lead you to a more rewarding airmanship experience as well.

Until our next post, fly safe and fly first.

2 thoughts on “The Human/Machine Team: Part 2”

  1. when was this posted please? i would like to credit it as a reference in my looking up how humans and machines are alike or not
    Thank you


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