Over the generations, industrialisation and technological innovation has seen machines replicate and improve upon the “muscle power” capability of humans and animals. In this dimension of “man versus machine”, predicting and delivering future abilities has arguably been and will continue to be relatively straight forward.

However, although repetitive and predictive computational capabilities have been successfully replicated and enhanced through computer systems, replacing the more subjective decision-making qualities of the human have proven to be more challenging.

So will technology ever replace the more advanced aspects of the human?

At NATS, we provide Air Traffic Control (ATC) services for in excess of two million flights per year from its two control centres at Swanwick, on the south coast of England, and Prestwick, on the west coast of Scotland. Today’s air traffic controllers are recruited on their mental agility capabilities and have both an innate and developed ability to maintain a complex picture of the aircraft under their control, informed by data from a suite of ATC tools, e.g. communications, surveillance and navigation. They are extensively trained to maintain the highest capability and professional judgement to ensure the safest operations within the ever changing situation of their airspace. It sounds complex and challenging and it is, but rest assured the UK air traffic control, engineering and operational support personnel that keep the UK and North Atlantic skies safe are among the best in the world.

The technology that provides today’s ATC tools has been progressively and significantly developed from their circa 1940 beginnings. However, with the ever increasing complexity of the skies over the UK, and indeed globally, it is essential that we deploy technology to meet the elaborate needs of modern air traffic control. It is also important that we train our staff on how to use this new technology, such that they can deliver the next generation operational methodologies and techniques that in turn  deliver the all-important benefits to our customers and the flying public, e.g. safety, predictability, cost efficiency, etc.

Therefore, the combined ability of the technology, people and procedures must take an incremental step to prepare it for the future and this journey has started for the NATS Prestwick Centre and indeed the whole organisation with the next generation systems now being deployed.

However, the question that is continually posed during these developments is to what extent should technology be used to enhance or replace the human capability. A question which is not only limited to Air Traffic Control but I imagine to all industries where there is a human decision and judgment dimension to the quality of the services they provide.

Technologists can generally put forward a compelling case that demonstrates a human-based activity can be enhanced or replaced by technology. When such proposals are subsequently tested with day to day known scenarios, nine times out of 10 their logic stands true. However, the acid test for me is driven by Murphy’s Law – “If anything can go wrong – it will.”

As with many other critical safety-based services, ATC provides a service that must be delivered 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year and to achieve this we have developed advanced layers of protection against Murphy’s Law. The technology parts of the system deal very well with the known possibilities of that law.

However, the human capability of detecting the unexpected, i.e. the unknown possibilities and then taking the necessary steps to resolve it, informed by years of learned judgement as well as objective and subjective reasoning, is where the human capability stands out and technology still very much lags.

A contract of trust must exist between the human and technology and that trust has to be won from the user. Without a material level of trust then even the smallest of unexpected system behavioural issues risks user rejection, the inability to introduce the new way of working and potentially puts at risk the desired business outcomes.

At NATS we fully recognise the need for this trust between system and user and have tried to learn from the past to ensure people’s earliest possible involvement when introducing new systems. The user training prior to the introduction of systems must be robust and assessed by the users as fit for purpose. In addition, this training must continue to ensure that users are capable, to the best of their abilities, of dealing with those Murphy’s Law moments.

The principles are not complex, being a continuous loop of – engage, develop, engage, build, engage, implement, engage, maintain. However, its consistent practice requires focus, discipline and concentration.

I am not an academic nor have I personally gathered any research-based evidence to support this hypothesis but in my personal experience, as long as we continue to find previously unknown system behaviours that our technology has not yet been taught how to deal with, humans should always prevail over technology.

So the question I posed at the beginning is perhaps the wrong one. The question should be ‘do we want technology to replace the more advanced aspects of the human’? For me, the answer is not until the trust contract is 100% but until then, continuing with innovation to remove complexity from ATC activity and our everyday lives, is what technology does best, which is why where possible we should embrace it.


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