Automation Irony

When designers of engineering systems discovered the propensity of human operator error, they often attempted to remove the need for human input. Removing human operators lead to the effect, a so-called Automation Irony. The designers normally automated the easy tasks, but left the complex, unfamiliar tasks for humans. The problem is that all the learning environmnet is gone. The building of mental models is no more. The human operators must conduct difficult tasks intermittently on unfamiliar systems -- a sure recipe for failure.

A resume e.g. at

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This is the explanation of the mechanism by which the S&E careers will fail in the US. Everything is automated. The routine jobs are easy to do; in fact doing them is not required any mental competence -- any high school graduate can do the modern jobs of engineers. But sometimes there is a need for completion of complex untrivial tasks... however, there have been no learning environment... nobody learnt how to do complex tasks, or any tasks at all. There will always be smart young people, however they will have no tasks the completuon of which would teach them the skills, and no supervisors who can show how to do the complex stuff.

I would not even blame outsourcing for the loss of S&E careers in the US. Their contribution is not significant. The US corporations cannot outsource complex engineering projects to India or China, because those countries do not have infrastructure to do the complex projects (they have no facilites, and there is no sutainable workforce). Life became too easy in the modern West. The western civililisation will virtually drown in its own shit.


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I've seen that during the years since I got my B. Sc. in mechanical engineering. One example is drafting/CAD. When I was an undergrad, preparing drawings using computers was a rarity. Within ten years, programs like AutoCAD were available for desktop computers, but expensive. A decade after later, they were commonplace.

When I started teaching, my students learned both. The reasoning back then was that by knowing how drawings were made using conventional methods and instruments, they understood how to do them using a computer. By the time I quit, the emphasis had shifted to sketching, followed by software. Now, rather than preparing conventional orthographic and, in some cases, isometric projection drawings using software, the focus is on 3-D solid modelling.

I'm not convinced, however, that the students nowadays are better at preparing drawings than I was over thirty years ago. When I learned drafting, I was required to visualize what I was to portray and think through the process. I never saw that while I taught CAD but, then, many of my students had little aptitude for drafting to begin with.

When I was completing my second master's degree, I took a course in advanced digital design. We were given a course project and we had to design and build a circuit to implement what was supposed to be done. I learned a lot about how to lay out components relative to each other in order to minimize wiring, as well as what's involved in troubleshooting a board. (My lab partner and I once spent several hours chasing a bug when all it turned out to be was a misconnected pin.)

Several years later, I was a TA for that same course. The students no longer had to build anything but designed the circuit using VHDL. The circuit was tested by downloading the software onto a board which had, I believe, a programmable logic device on it. No laying out of components, no cutting and stripping of wires, and no checking of connections.

In short, the overall educational value had been severely diluted and diminished.

But sometimes

There's one thing I wish that would be taught in engineering schools. Students would benefit enormously by doing case studies, both of failures and successful designs. They would have to go through the entire process to determine what was done, what calculations were made, and, finally, what worked and what didn't.

But that would require a major shift in how engineering is taught. For one thing, universities would have to start hiring profs with actual field experience once again, something that was quite common even a generation ago. Also, it would mean having to reduce the number of "fun" design projects which emphasize teamwork more than actually producing something that works. In my experience, most new designs are based on older ones, usually ones which worked, but their successful adaptation would require a knowledge of why those older designs worked.

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I've also seen this in the field. Humans are required by nature to have a constant meaningful stimulus. We tried to take the easy tasks away and leave the harder ones for the operator, and also to retrain the operators to work at higher levels in the process. Instead of poking switches to open valves at the right time, they could concentrate on scheduling the right production and taking care of overall quality issues. What we ended up with was a few operators who were able to run the entire plant, and a few others who needed to be poked in the ribs when the foreman came around. COV improved by a factor of 3 to 6. Given the process improvement it was worth it. There was talk of eliminating an operator, but they decided to keep a "hot spare" trainee around instead on the (now) easy board.

Unfortunately, when things go wrong, the operators trained under the new system had too little experience to recognize and react to unusual situations. The old operators were so used to what is now an unusual situation that they responed automatically. When you go from having one alarm per second to one scheduled alert every 20 minutes, alert is not an option.


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Herman Family

very interesting...that is how the brain works.

It will take a generation or two to get past that, meantime we in the US will be eating a lot of rice and beans,... then just rice.

it is very very significant...although you do raise a very good point on the loss of base level experience...Ive seen that starting to happen even 15 years ago... many other engineers knew how to look things up in a catalog and specifie to fit,,but not how to strategize or optimize a system... they could find something that would fit,,, that was it. A boiler maybe,... when there were many other more viable options without a boiler.... that would have made the system much more viable for the client.

The US corporations cannot

That is the historical pattern. I had lunch the other day with a chinese american babe about 25, IQ must have been

200 across the boards... one brilliant person on any issue you raised, she was impeccable though in discussing a few physics issues, I asked about that... she reluctantly said she had 4 years in physics at UC Berkely but was not a physics major.

(the drop out rate for male math wiz nerds in physics is at least 90%... in my my earlier years I met a young woman, killer babe type also, who made it in physics...Polly, she was working the night shift at a bar, auditing her physics classes at UC Davis, I asked her why and she said she was taking care of her invalid had to audit the classes and work nights... I asked her a few physics related questions...she knew the answers in spades).

This chinese babe begged to differ with me on my remarks similar to your own, she is on a more optimistic agenda, saying that the human species is changing so fast, with increased scientific capabilities that it is not actually the same species as the previous generations, especially now, so that the life cycle of nations issue I have been discussing is irrelevant... I had tp agree with much of her premise, I would like to think I am wrong with mine.

We ended that aspect of our discussion in a partial stand off. I met her a few months earlier at a lyndon Louroche PAC table set up outside of a starbucks in San Rafael... the man is not nutz as I had assumed from all the bad PR on him... he has an agenda now to push economic reform on the US via legislation ..for instance stopping the american car manufactures scheduled shut down of 75 million square feet of auto manufacturing in the US over the next two years... I havent read the proposal yet.. in talking to her it is apparent that it will be more than slightly workable... they have a lot of big names signed onto the proposal, especially in the rust belt but interestingly no one in the senate willing to sponsor it.

thats interesting. This is a competent organization, I think they will get most of their proposales onto the senate floor, especially as the US economy goes south.

If we offshore the S and E, we loose the training ground for the brain trust development crucial to the nations survival...that was also discussed extensively. She asked if I would help her set up tours for high school and college students in manufacturing plants..she says these dont even know what a machine tool is... when you tell them that our industry is mothballing that stuff or sending it to china they think you mean a 20 dollar hand drill or something... they have no clue...not even the senators in many cases... they dont know they vote to allow it.

Phil Scott

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Phil Scott

That of course is a world class idea..its what I did on my own, it produced the insights I used to get to top levels with my light weight degree.

I did one other thing, even as I was driving cross country on a freeway, I would see something on a building and sort out what it was, why it would be employed and how it worked...then, and most importantly I would see how many ways I could think of improving the function, or using the same notion in some other industry for some other purpose..

that...was valuable. So my resume says ' cross platform innovation ..etc'... no one has a clooo what that means... they want to know about the 2 day GAP (gasp) in my resume... I tell them I go bass fishing between projects and hope for weeks, but only got days most of the time ... these assume I must be lying,, so they can call that police dept and see if I was arrested.... the mind boggles.

Sometimes I tell em about the gun fights in my previous life... and the flat tracking... they dont understand any of that.. they dont even know what the problems are with carrying an automatic.

amazing.... these don't have any balls either.


something that was quite common even a

thats it alright.

Phil Scott

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Phil Scott

This is exactly right. As the educated part of mankind has realized that it badly needs physical exercises even though the work is mostly office the same way management requires hands on training. Otherwise they never get how things are actually done. Big disappointment for those who believe that technical work is below their IQ level.

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Old Pif

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