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An unexpected byproduct of automation? Try boredom. That was the cautionary message from Mary "Missy" Cummings at the recent MIT Sloan CIO Symposium.
"You've got people who are babysitting automated systems for extended periods of time, and this is something humans do not do well at all," Cummings said during a panel discussion on the impact of automation.
It's a problem she's seeing in aviation -- where she has extensive expertise both as the director of the Humans and Autonomy Lab at Duke University and as a former military pilot -- as well as in other industries where automated systems are often found, such as mining.
SearchCIO's Senior News Writer Nicole Laskowski caught up with Cummings after the panel discussion to discuss the boredom problem.
On the impact of automation panel, you mentioned that having humans oversee automated systems can also induce employee boredom. How do CIOs manage that?
Mary "Missy" Cummings: It's very important for companies today to be honest with themselves that when they move toward automation, there are lots of benefits, but one of the benefits you are not going to realize is that humans will pay attention all the time.
This is one thing we know for sure -- that really beyond 20 or 30 minutes of a sustained attention task, humans can't do it beyond that time. And so, if you've got a power plant control room, for example, or any kind of automated process control, you need to appreciate that humans will check out very quickly mentally if they don't have some sort of task to do.
The question for us in terms of research is trying to figure out what's the best way to re-engage people. Once they're in a babysitting mode for automation, they're just waiting for something to go wrong. How do you let them supervise a system that still keeps them mentally sharp?
It could be letting them play games on their iPad. It could be trying to figure out a new task load or task sharing or communication scheme that keeps them engaged. It could be increasing the number of tasks that they do. One of the things that we see, certainly in the military and other power plant domains, let these people do more work. You can increase your manning capability by letting a person who's not doing anything for the bulk of their time do something else for you.