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Human supervisors of computer-based systems sometimes become mystified and awed by the power of the computer, even seeing it as a kind of magical authority figure. This leads quite naturally to naive and misplaced trust. This was particularly well articulated by Norbert Wiener (1964), who used as a metaphor a classic in horror literature, W. W. Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw. The metaphor is salient.
In this story, an English working family sits down to dinner. After dinner the son leaves to work at a factory, and the old parents listen to the tales of their guest, a sergeant major in the Indian army. He tells of Indian magic and shows them a dried monkey’s paw, which, he says, is a talisman that has been endowed by an Indian holy man with the virtue of giving three wishes to each of three successive owners. This, he says, was to prove the folly of defying fate.
He claims he does not know the first two wishes of the first owner, but only that the last was for death. He was the second owner, but his experiences were too terrible to relate. He is about to cast the paw on the coal fire when his host retrieves it, and despite all the sergeant major can do, wishes for £200.
Shortly thereafter there is a knock at the door. A very solemn gentleman is there from the company that has employed his son and, as gently as he can, breaks the news that the son has been killed in an accident at the factory. Without recognizing any responsibility in the matter, the company offers its sympathy and £200 as solatium.
The theme here is the danger of trusting the magic of the computer when its operation is singularly literal. If you ask for £200 and do not express the condition that you do not wish it at the cost of the life of your son, you will receive £200 whether your son lives or dies.
To a naive user the computer can be simultaneously so wonderful and intimidating as to seem faultless. If the computer produces other than what its user expects, that can be attributed to its superior wisdom. Such discrepancies are usually harmless, but if they are allowed to continue they can, in some complex and highly interconnected systems, endanger lives. As new computer and control technology is introduced, it is crucial that it is accepted by users for what it is—a tool meant to serve and be controlled ultimately by human beings (Sheridan, 1992). The story of the monkey’s paw, highlighted by Wiener, the “father of cybernetics” in his last (Pulitzer Prize-winning) book, is a lesson about the hubris of technology that is relevant to planning NGATS.
Given some understanding of the error situation, the usual wisdom for keeping so-called bad errors in check, according to the human factors profession, is (in order of efficacy) (Sheridan, 2002):
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