Human Failure

Just read a random news bit on a sports site (German, thus not linking here).
Context: Formula 1.
Content: Ferrari testing (and intending to use) the electronic “traffic light” as replacement for the old school lollipop-guy to signal the driver when he can start again after a pit stop.
Background: Apparently, last year the system malfunctioned, signalled “green” to a driver too early, he started still having the fuel hose inserted, it all cost him time and (in one of those wonderful “what would have been if everything would have been exactly the same except for this one very event” scenarios) ultimately the championship.
Where it gets interesting: A person in the comments pointed out, that such mistakes did happen to human lollipop-men in the past as well. And, yes, although my F1 watching days are long gone, even I can confirm that such mishaps would happen a few times a year. You’d hardly ever go a full season without seeing at least one event of someone starting while still connected to the fuel hose ever since refuelling was introduced back in the 90ies.

And that reminded me of something. Something I was told during my computer science education (not to claim this is some highly complex truth, it’s just a question of when it’s pointed out to you). We are disproportionately harder on machines than on human operators when it comes to failure. Think plane crashes, to put forward a rather big scale example. When the investigation reveals “human failure”, the story usually ends right there, because, well, to err is human. But when, on the other hand, it turns out that some sensor gave the wrong reading, you can be sure a big headline scandal along with a whole stack of compensation lawsuits will follow.

There are good and rational reasons for it, of course. Technical errors are more likely to reoccur and be found throughout all instances (installed in many different systems, e.g. planes) of the component in question, assuming they are deterministic in some way. So it’s a generally good idea to go and find out exactly why the malfunction happened and how we can prevent repeat. Also, on a more cynical note, there’s just not much fun in suing a pilot who might be dead himself or being in a half-coma, spending every wake moment feeling extremely miserable already – your 50-million-claim might get through, but you’re unlikely to ever see any actual money.

But there’s also a very primal and emotional side to it. If we’re destined to die, we’d rather have it happen at the hands of a human than a computer chip. You know, sort of like .. keeping it in the family. We expect humans to fail. We expect machines to be flawless. And although this is a good expectation, one that ups responsibility and strengthens sound development patterns, we still need to understand, that machines are created by humans. And those still can err.

To add another thought and put the said in perspective: there’s also another phenomenon on the rise and spreading, on the other end of the scale of man-machine-interaction. The “computer malfunction” excuse. Usually used by clerks and sometimes accompanied by God’s Last Message to His Creation. It’s supposed to be a magic formula implying “hey, look, I told you it’s a computer malfunction, so it’s obviously not my fault and there’s just as obviously nothing I could have done to help you or prevent it, so there’s nothing you can reasonably be angry about”. Uh, sure, maybe my very health or financial existence was threatened, maybe I was forced to invest huge amounts of time into trying to achieve or fix something that should have been a triviality, maybe it’s the 20th time we’re having this conversation and you’re still unable to get it right, but, seriously, how could I reasonably be angry about all of this. Just because during all the time, repeated requests and demands you could not be bothered to actually take matters in your own hands and do your job, and now are blaming everything on a “computer malfunction”, that probably went somewhere along the lines of “you entered wrong data into the computer causing it to do wrong things to my life”? That’d be really insane of me, indeed.

Bottom line to this post: computers are not divine beings. They are neither perfect by nature, nor the ultimate excuse for screwing up things.

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