I also realized that day that I would never understand anything unless I understood the strategies that people used. I didn’t do anything with that realization back then, thinking it would be like trying to nail jello to a wall. I’m fascinated by strategy research today, but then I was afraid the jello and my career in aviation human factors would both be a mess lying at my feet.
Our big worries with automation that does the thinking for us were things like, will controllers use the technology? Today we’d call that technology acceptance. will the smart automation change the job from that of controlling air traffic to managing it? Of course, when people are put into a situation where they merely observe, while the automation does the work, there’s the risk that the human will not truly be engaged and situation awareness would suffer. That’s a real concern especially if you ever expect the human to again take over the task.
Now there are initiatives and technologies in the FAA that eliminate or at least reduce conflictions by optimizing the aircraft sequence and leave to the controller the task of getting the aircraft to fall in line with that optimization. Imagine that the computer optimizes the spacing and timing of planes landing at an airport. The planes are not, of course, naturally in this optimized pattern, so the computer presents to the controller “plane bubbles” Those plane bubbles are optimized. All the controller has to do is get the plane into that bubble and conflicts will be reduced and landings would be optimized. This notion of having the computer do the heavy cognitive lifting of solving conflict and optimization and then presenting those “targets” to the controller can be used in a variety of circumstances. Now the “controller” is not even a manager, but in some ways the controller is being kept in the game and should therefore show pretty good situation awareness.
Now I worry that situation awareness be very local—tied to a specific, perhaps meaningless piece of the overall picture. This time global SA levels may be a conern; they may have little or no understanding of the big picture of all those planes landing, even if he or she does have good SA of getting a particular plane in queue.
For some reason, I no longer worry about technology acceptance as I did in 1997. Twenty years later, I do worry that this new level of automation can take much of the agency away from the controller—so much of what makes the job interesting and fun. Retention of controllers might suffer and those that stay will be less satisfied with their work, which produces other job consequences.
As an end to this answer, I note that much has changed in the last quarter of a century, but we still seem to be following a rather static list of machines do this and people do that. Instead, I think the industry needs to adopt the adaptive allocation of tasks that human factors professionals have studied. The question is not really when should the computer sequence flights, but when should that responsibility be handed over to the human. Or when should the computer, detecting a tired controller perhaps, rest responsibility for separation from him or her.