This content is part of the Essential Guide: 2015 MIT Sloan CIO Symposium guide: Digital disruption
Evaluate Weigh the pros and cons of technologies, products and projects you are considering.

Automated systems problems and dangers: Employee boredom

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.

Let us know what you think of the story; email Nicole Laskowski, senior news writer, or find her on Twitter @TT_Nicole.

View All Videos

Join the conversation


Send me notifications when other members comment.

Please create a username to comment.

What should CIOs do to help business combat the potential boredom induced by automated systems?
Have your CTO develop better machines to oversee all those newly automated systems. Then get HR to find REAL jobs for all those well-trained, highly motivated workers who are bored out of their minds trying to look after the very machines that are doing their old jobs.

Someone somewhere needs to rethink the workplace. Business is wasting it's best (and largest) asset. It's workers. And that just helps generate a lot of boredom in the process.
The most important thing we can do to combat boredom is to spread the message that the automation is there to allow us to look at more interesting problems. If we feel like we are only there to babysit scripts and wait until they complete to run the next one, then yes, that is definitely going to be boring. Using automation to help look for more interesting challenges, or explore areas of an application or system for improvement will be much more interesting. 
Why is there any human intervention overseeing automation..? Someone's not thinking this through very well. Dwell on the AUTO part of automation. Of course people are getting bored if we're asking them to do some other machine's work.

If the best we can come up with for our displaced workers is automation-overseer, we're coming up sadly short or utilizing one of our best workplace assets. The workers.

Throughout our industrial history, we've been smart enough to develop technology for bigger, better, faster machines that can do the work of a warehouse full of (former) workers. Older workers have always been displaced by newer technology, but we've usually been smart enough to find new fields to develop.

All of a sudden, we've become astonishingly stupid and forgotten all the hard-working, well-trained, highly motivated workers standing by. And the best task we can find for them is watching the machines do their job for them. And now we're wondering why they're bored...?

Someone with a big role and a bigger salary isn't doing much thinking....
I wonder if there's a way to engage people who must maintain focus on the 'if something goes wrong' scenario by keeping them prepared for that scenario. While waiting for something to go wrong in real life, they could be participating in simulations that keep them responding to virtual problems, so that when its time to respond, they don't panic but continue with the same response structure they've developed through the repeated simulations.
Michael is spot on here.  I find the real issue with automation isn't boredom.  Its complacency.  too many look at automated checks and presume that Pass means Pass with the same degree of scrutiny as a human mind, and that seldom ever is actually the case.  Like Michael said.   its really about showing that what was checked previously is still in a similar state, its a starting point for testing.  It is not the end.
This is a huge issue. Think about nearly automated vehicles. "Oh we can't turn over 100% of the driving to the computer, we need the passenger behind the steering wheel to take over in an emergency" As if some bored human "driver" is going to be more attentive after 20 minutes behind the wheel doing nothing, or someone with below average driving skills can take over in an emergency.

Log file review is very mind-numbing. The desire is for even more sophisticated automation. The reward being fewer things to review.

The Navy takes their aircraft carrier crew and has them look for small debris on the clean runways just to be sure -- very mundane. Rewards are made to those that find them. A solution that is reward based has to keep people engaged seems to be a logical direction.