Humans in the Loop in Automation

It only takes a brief foray into the Smithsonian Channel’s Air Disasters to understand that auto-pilot isn’t a fool-proof oracle. On more than one occasion, flights cruise smoothly, only for pilots to discover they’re dangerously close to the ground. Six miles in the sky is the perfect illustration of the sweet spot of automation: one that includes the inscrutable talents of both humans and machines. 

Humans-in-the-loop automation blends the speed, accuracy, and efficiency of machines with humans’ intuition, creativity, and critical-thinking skills. When working together, things are unstoppable. 

Automation is a boon for organizations: finance departments spend 25,000 hours a year mopping up human errors. Automation puts an end to that. Other reports hail automation as the ultimate cost reduction tool, saving mid-sized businesses $4 million per year. Backed by an attractive list of unbeatable benefits, it is tempting to go full-boar with an automated strategy.

Automation can help improve efficiency and accuracy.

But it is important to recognize the role humans play in the process.

What is humans-in-the-loop automation?

In automation, “humans in the loop” (HITL) refers to people’s involvement in an automated system’s decision-making process. You get the best of both worlds: human intuition at machine speed. 

You’ve probably been tapped as a HITL without even knowing it. 

Social media apps ask for your OK that a photo features your sibling. 

Complex Spotify algorithms guess what new songs you’ll love—but still ask you to confirm with a thumbs up or down. 

Even the original CAPTCHA asked us to verify low-confidence digitizations of old books. 

With humans in the loop, automation becomes even more powerful. By combining human intelligence with machine capabilities, organizations can: 

  • Achieve greater levels of efficiency
  • Reduce errors
  • Increase flexibility

Even though a machine may be performing a task, a human is still involved in overseeing the process and making necessary adjustments. Automation is a lightning-speed assistant. But with any assistant, it’s important to occasionally look over their work and remain informed of the day’s goings-on. Effective automation doesn’t jettison full control over to machines—but gives humans the freedom to selectively hone our attention. 

Why do automated systems work better with humans in the loop? 

Humans are hard-coded with intuition. We see a rustling bush, and most of us don’t hang out long enough to decide whether it is our nosy neighbor or vicious wildlife. 

Automated systems, on the other hand, aren’t as attuned to their environment. 

Performing its list of prescribed duties, automation can slowly inch toward danger, only raising a red flag once it has determined that, yes, there is a lion in the bush. 

Machines are capable of performing many tasks quickly and accurately, however, they are still prone to making mistakes or missing important details. Even the most state-of-the-art intelligent document processing system promises 99%—but that 1% is where humans can make a sweeping impact. 

Here’s where humans shine: they’re able to identify something that’s “not quite right” and pull it for manual review. By continually spot-checking, humans can ensure quality control in an ever-evolving world. Humans involved in the decision-making process can pinpoint errors and address them quickly before issues halt operations. 

This is especially important in healthcare, finance, and legal services where even minor errors can have serious consequences.

Benefits of humans-in-the-loop automation

Humans in the loop is an increasingly popular approach to harnessing the speed and accuracy of machines while also involving human intuition, creativity, and critical thinking. This approach has many benefits, which include improved accuracy, stronger client relationships, greater flexibility, and higher efficiency.

Add white-glove TLC to an automated process 

Especially in outward-facing instances, automation improves the experience for, you guessed it, a customer. Arguably, humans are still the final arbiter on what makes a successful workflow. 

Whether it’s answering requests at a rapid clip, processing invoices, or opening a new account—the satisfaction of the customer is the endgame. 

Yes, a solid reporting dashboard rich with insights can provide an unparalleled window into a process’s success rate. 

But a human better grasps many of the nuances underpinning a happy client relationship. Humans are able to supercharge workflows based on customer feedback and conversations. If something goes wrong, they know whether a client is angry or disappointed

While an automated system can report how long a request takes to resolve, humans can tweak a process to bolster client satisfaction. For example, a human knows whether a process needs more white-glove touchpoints, or what additional info can invigorate automated client communication. The human touch is the magic touch when it comes to turning a one-time transaction passing through your system into a long-term, valuable customer.

Infuse automated processes with your company’s ethical standpoint

Humans bring more to a customer-facing process than a much-needed dose of TLC. They can also serve as the ethics referee. When you rely too strictly on automation, without minding human involvement, employees are unaware of the processes affecting their line of business. 

Artificial intelligence and machine-learning models are helpful for churning through hundreds of thousands of applications, for instance. But without the intervention of human knowledge—how do you know how decisions are made? AI-powered mortgage lending services are a frequent target of inquest and legislation. Biases have bled into machine-learning models to discriminate against potential lenders based on race or neighborhood.  

These biases, and even one-off errors, can add up to a crucial loss of business. Humans should consistently remain informed of how machines are forming conclusions and, where necessary, interject. 

An effective machine-learning model continually builds on itself. It’s important that it evolves in line with your business’s ethics in mind. 

Improve decision-making accuracy

One of the key benefits of having humans in the loop is that it helps to ensure the accuracy and reliability of automated systems. Humans can help catch mistakes, ensuring that the final output is correct. For automated processes in higher education or finance, one poor, unmonitored decision can have a big impact on someone’s life. 

While machines can perform many tasks quickly and accurately, they can still make mistakes. Turns out, machine-learning models work best with a little human nudging. How many times do you need to touch an ignited stove to know “fire is hot”? 


But a computer model thinks differently.

You need to give it a gentle yet consistent nudge known as a feedback loop. Humans on the sidelines can give models these little life lessons to make sure decisions stay on track. With HITL, humans are the real-life CAPTCHA for mission-critical decision-making, verifying outputs against a greater and more meaningful objective. 

Build more nimble processes

Another significant benefit of humans in the loop is that it provides greater flexibility. Machines can be programmed to perform specific tasks but may not be able to respond swiftly to changing circumstances or new situations. Having humans involved allows for a more adaptive approach to better handle unexpected changes or problems. 

Humans can rewrite automation’s business rules when new legislation passes, or management sets a new strategy.  Humans can provide the necessary adaptability and problem-solving skills to help the automation process better respond to changing circumstances.

The secret ingredient to an effective HITL strategy: Process orchestration

Technology like business process automation (BPA) aims to eliminate silos. But if you’re using a broad range of automation tools that target a niche area of your business, you only till a new field of silos—one where software monitors part of the work unbeknownst to the humans performing parallel duties. 

To effectively bring humans into the fold, make sure your BPA strategy includes a process orchestration mindset.

A workflow tool that targets a discrete activity like sales or finance—without any crossover—simply does not give anyone, human or computer, full insight into obstacles, redundancies, and successes. 

But with process orchestration, you can bring together all of the tasks across the whole of your organization. From one dashboard, humans can adjust business rules, assess decision-making models, and find opportunities to build customer relationships all in one place. “Humans in the loop” means the entire loop. Process orchestration shatters institutional silos for good.

How do you know which automated processes will most benefit from HITL?

Automated platforms are a must-have for every organization. Most are self-driving sequences that can run into perpetuity. Others require a little extra HITL hand-holding. How do you know how to strike the right balance? Here are three questions to guide your thinking.

Does your automated process include: 

  • Complex decisions?: What is the outcome of a business decision? If it significantly impacts a customer’s relationship with your organization—or their life in general—it’s best to add a human into the mix. Automated processes that underpin high-risk decisions like medical diagnoses, college acceptances, and mortgage offers should lean more toward heavy HITL. 
  • Your core offering?: There are plenty of businesses promoting an AI model as part of their core business offering. For example, a robot personal shopper digs into the deep data of your tastes and suggests a date-night outfit. Or a streaming service pits your likes against everyone else in the viewing sphere to best-guess your next flick. These services still employ experts to occasionally review outputs—and even ask customers to manually rate recommendations. 
  • Regulatory risk?: Highly scrutinized industries like finance and banking should always retain awareness of their automated decision making processes. Even the most prominent companies have found themselves in publicity hot water—and earned the ire of lawmakers—due to unmonitored biases that ran rampant. 

Even if your automated processes don’t fit the above bills, it’s still important to keep a close eye on them. Plan to frequently revisit the business rules, outside forces, and domain knowledge that guides your automation. 

The rise of automation has been a topic of much discussion and debate in recent years, with many predicting that machines and algorithms will replace human workers in various industries. However, the reality is that humans will still play a critical role in the automation process, leading to the concept of “humans in the loop.”

Humans in the Loop in Automation

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