Human v machine: Dr Joan Cahill is bridging the divide

14 Feb 2020

Image: © Gorodenkoff/

Trinity researcher Dr Joan Cahill is seeing an increasing demand for her work, which is putting human factors and ethics at the centre of innovation.

Dr Joan Cahill finds the increased level of interest in her work over the past year and a half quite amusing. She’s seeing more and more interdisciplinary teams looking at problems in different ways, as they want to explore if what they are doing is purposeful, appropriate and beneficial. As she put it, they are paying “more attention to the issues that matter”.

Cahill is a principal investigator and research fellow at the Centre for Innovative Human Systems in Trinity College Dublin. She was recently recognised with a Societal Impact Award from the university for her work at the nexus of people, technology and processes. And the emerging significance of that convergence is why she is so popular right now.

Human factors and ethics

In brief, Cahill is a human factors researcher. She understands the psychological and physiological principles guiding humans and applies this knowledge to the engineering and design of products, processes and systems. With technology and industrial design using methodologies that include personas and scenarios, Cahill explained, “this is just another way of looking”.

In recent years, technology has become less of a tool we wield when appropriate and more like an invisible force that shapes our day-to-day lives, and now researchers such as Cahill are asking the important questions about human and machine interactions. It’s an interdisciplinary mix, weaving in threads from psychology, philosophy, industry and design, and Cahill also sees it sitting closely to applied ethics.

Noticing the need for methodologies to support researchers, manufacturers and designers in addressing human and ethical considerations for future technologies, she developed the Human Factors and Ethics Canvas.

“Human factors and ethics have to go together,” said Cahill, who believes that we are in a good place right now in terms of including these considerations at an early stage of the design process.

Headshot of a woman with chin-length dark hair wearing a red blouse with a bow at the neck.

Image: Joan Cahill

Seeing as it’s so broadly relevant, Cahill has brought her human factors expertise to projects in many industries including aviation, automotive and healthcare.

These projects are all about delivering benefits for individuals and for society, but Cahill is aware that you need more to sell this to industry players.

“Technology is often for saving money and for resource issues,” she explained. “Issues have to be addressed, but you have to have a business case.” However, Cahill is still of the mind that “human factors and low cost don’t have to be oppositional”.

Workplace wellbeing for pilots

Cahill joined the Centre for Innovative Human Systems in 2005, after working with software companies and consultancies in human computer interaction and information design. Her Human Factors and Ethics Canvas was developed across three projects and her guidance is frequently sought out for new ones.

She is currently working with her Trinity colleague Prof Simon Wilson on a project examining depression, burnout and fatigue among commercial pilots. Informed by a first-of-its-kind 50-minute survey, Cahill is working with airlines, the Irish Aviation Authority and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency to develop ideas to manage workplace wellbeing.

‘Human factors and low cost don’t have to be oppositional’

While Cahill is focused on the psychological and social side, Wilson brings the statistical knowledge to help discover correlations between burnout and disengagement. Recommendations so far involve coping mechanisms and mental health assessment, as well as the development of technologies, such as wearables, using the latest in machine learning in a proactive and predictive way.

This combined “bio-psycho-social approach”, Cahill explained, could help identify high-risk patterns of behaviour and enable interventions and risk assessment in real time.

In terms of societal impact, this could be another winning project from Cahill. Pilots, she said, are “suffering daily”, and responses such as mandatory intoxication assessment are “stigmatising”.

Human-centred science

There are other areas of workplace wellbeing capturing Cahill’s interest. When we spoke, she was preparing for an appearance at the annual Automation and Robotics conference to discuss healthy work practices, particularly in financial services where automation is becoming more and more prevalent.

“People have bad days, not robots,” she said, highlighting how the automated assistant or co-worker can raise questions around performance monitoring, teamwork and trust.

The world of work, Cahill added, is in a state of change, from contracts and surveillance to the measure of human value and contribution. And in all industries, the introduction of new technologies must be done in a healthy, safe and productive way. “Technology has a role, but we need to question it,” she said.

Cahill sees industries taking on ethical and human-friendly considerations but, sometimes, rushing in with developments regardless. What she would like to see is that human factors and ethical design are practically applied in a structured, scientific way.

She has worked on an assisted driving project between the ADAPT research centre and a Japanese car manufacturer, in which the car and the technology being developed was coherently and systematically tested. It’s this same rigour she wants applied to human-machine interactions. This means testing and assessing processes as well as technology, which she said is not currently happening.

And with that scientific approach, Cahill hopes we can mitigate the unintended consequences of new technology and innovations. “Fitbits and quantification are changing how you think about yourself. Each new technology is adding to this change. We need to define these,” she said.

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.