Ironies of Automation

This might strike a chord with some. This paper was published in 1983 by Lisanne Bainbridge in the journal Automation.

I found references and extracts from the paper in the training notes collected by a colleague of mine after taking a course in system reliability and human factors. It’s amazing how much was foreseen so long ago, and how little progress has been made by so many engineers since then.


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.

It’s still so relevant that it inspired many follow-ups. This one by Baxter et al:

I think one of the benefits from “automation” is better and more process instruments, because “if you don’t measure it, you can’t control it”. Having more instruments has allowed for process improvements. For example, adding mass flow meters to each monomer directly feeding a latex reactor, allowed the elimination of “monomer mix tanks”, which was the highest process safety risk in our plants. So, the benefits go well beyond replacing human operators. In fact, while automation did reduce some of the “back breaking” work done by operators, it has created the need for a more highly trained operator with more knowledge. They are as computer savvy as me, some even more so. It’s been an interesting journey.