We’ve been getting a little lesson in what human-factors boffins call “automation complacency” over the last couple of days. Google apparently made some change to the autosuggest algorithm in Gmail over the weekend, and the program started inserting unusual email addresses into the “To” field of messages. As Business Insider explained, “Instead of auto-completing to the most-used contact when people start typing a name into the ‘To’ field, it seems to be prioritizing contacts that they communicate with less frequently.”
Google quickly acknowledged the problem:
We’re aware of an issue with Gmail and auto-complete and are currently investigating. Apologies for any inconvenience.
— Gmail (@gmail) February 23, 2015
The glitch led to a flood of misdirected messages, as people pressed Send without bothering to check the computer’s work. “I got a bunch of emails yesterday that were clearly not meant for me,” blogged venture capitalist Fred Wilson on Monday. Gmail users flocked to Twitter to confess to shooting messages to the wrong people. “My mum just got my VP biz dev’s expense report,” tweeted Pingup CEO Mark Slater. “She was not happy.” Wrote CloudFlare founder Matthew Prince, “It’s become pathological.”
The bug may lie in the machine, but the pathology actually lies in the user. Automation complacency happens all the time when computers take over tasks from people. System operators place so much trust in the software that they start to zone out. They assume that the computer will perform flawlessly in all circumstances. When the computer fails or makes a mistake, the error goes unnoticed and uncorrected — until too late.
Researchers Raja Parasuraman and Dietrich Manzey described the phenomenon in a 2010 article in Human Factors:
Automation complacency — operationally defined as poorer detection of system malfunctions under automation compared with under manual control — is typically found under conditions of multiple-task load, when manual tasks compete with the automated task for the operator’s attention. … Experience and practice do not appear to mitigate automation complacency: Skilled pilots and controllers exhibit the effect, and additional task practice in naive operators does not eliminate complacency. It is possible that specific experience in automation failures may reduce the extent of the effect. Automation complacency can be understood in terms of an attention allocation strategy whereby the operator’s manual tasks are attended to at the expense of the automated task, a strategy that may be driven by initial high trust in the automation.
In the worst cases, automation complacency can result in planes crashing on runways, school buses smashing into overpasses, or cruise ships running aground on sandbars. Sending an email to your mom instead of a colleague seems pretty trivial by comparison. But it’s a symptom of the same ailment, an ailment that we’ll be seeing a lot more of as we rush to hand ever more jobs and chores over to computers.