Thursday, January 19, 2012

Costa Concordia: Trusting Technology or Human Error

By Prof. Alan (Avi) Kirschenbaum*

“State of art ship hits a reef close to shore. 4,000 passengers evacuated safely. Human error the likely cause.” Sound familiar? Now replace “ship” with aircraft or train and what we see is a pattern where the interaction of technology and humans sometimes doesn’t work out. This is especially acute when transportation safety and security decisions are abdicated to technology to be the final arbiter.

Source: Costa Cruises  
One of the factors contributing to the tragedy of the Costa Concordia, which ran aground last week off the Italian coast, is that in recent years large cruise ships are more dependent on sophisticated technology. So, for instance, news agency Reuters concluded that “computerized systems are taking over much of the safety burden and crews are dependent on what the equipment tells them.”

This does not mean that technology should be forsaken; but the degree of trust that decision makers place in technology will have a direct impact if “recommendations” or outputs are complied with. Those who did not place much trust that technology can detect or stop a threat were more likely to bend or even ignore the rules to fit the situation. So, in a sense, “human error” can be blamed in large part on trusting technology as the final authority in cases where security and safety are concerned.

In the case of the Carnival Corp.'s Costa Concordia cruise ship, state-of-the-art safety technology was in place. We will only know later on if “human error” can be identified as the culprit in the disaster. But if past findings are any indication, the reasons are far more complex and lie in both the methods that crews are trained in and the organizational directives that reinforce the use of technology to generate mindless decisions.

*The writer is the initiator and coordinator of BEMOSA (Behavioral Modeling of Security in Airports).