Human factor still rules when it comes to machinery and robotics

I often wonder what the role of human beings will be in a future where computers become more capable than we ever imagined, allowing them to do many of the jobs only humans are currently capable of doing.

Although things may seem bleak to most people, I tend to take a more optimistic view, and every now and again I come across something that reassures me the future is bright and holds opportunities.

“A creative mindset can be a powerful force for looking beyond the status quo”

David and Tom Kelley, founders of world-renowned design firm Ideo, mention a story in their book Creative Confidence that has a number of valuable lessons.

The story revolves around Doug Dietz, at the time the head of design and development of high-tech medical imaging systems at GE. Doug’s division had just launched a new range of MRI machines they had been developing. The machines were well-received by hospitals and a number of units were sold.

They were so good that the company had submitted them for the International Design Excellence Award, equivalent of the Oscars for designers.

Doug decided to go and experience one of the machines in action at a paediatric hospital not far from his office. What he saw made his heart sink.

A frail child came in for an MRI scan, and as she approached the machine, she held her father’s hand tightly and began to cry. The MRI technician called for an anaesthetist.

Doug was confused. Patients did not need to be anaesthetised for an MRI scan. The technician said it wasn’t strictly necessary, but because so many children were terrified of the machine, they had no option but to knock them out before the scan.

Doug decided to rethink the design of the MRI scanners. His team realised that even though they had designed a beautiful and functional machine, they had overlooked a critical aspect of design: the human element. They had not considered the typical patient experience.

At this stage, changing the design of the machine would be too costly, so they came up with an alternative solution. It was a stroke of genius.

They decided to make the MRI scanners resemble a theme park adventure, complete with imagery and even a narrative.

A machine would be redecorated to look like a pirate ship, and as the technician readied a patient for a scan, she would tell the story of a pirate ship adventure where the child was a key character. As the machine whirred and clanked, the technician reminded the child that those were just the sounds of the ship creaking.

This small change to the scanners brought about a huge transformation. No longer were kids afraid and no longer were anaesthetists required. In fact, on a subsequent visit to a hospital, Doug observed a little girl asking her dad if they could please come back to use the machine again tomorrow.

Doug’s experience highlighted the importance of “Design Thinking”: a technique for designing products and services in such a way that there is a human-centric focus. In other words, there’s a focus on more than just functionality, but of delighting the user.

More importantly, it highlights another very important thing: that the human touch will always be a key element in many professions.

The MRI scanners were no longer terrifying when the human touch was added; that is, when the technicians became a part of the experience, rather than just being an operator by the side.

In a similar fashion, when we are ill, we want to go to a friendly doctor we can relate to, not to a machine.

When we send our kids to school, we want them to be met by the warm smile of a compassionate teacher, not by a machine.

When we board a flight, we want to be welcomed by a friendly and comforting smile, something no machine will ever be able to do.

Machines will certainly transform our world, and will take over many of the jobs we currently do; but they will never completely replace human beings.

In many cases we will still continue doing our work, although our roles will differ considerably.

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