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The relationship between humans and technology

A respirator that stops working? A defibrillator that doesn’t measure up? When it comes to medical technology, there is no place for margins of error and substandard copies. It has to work. Christin Lindholm, research student at the School of Engineering, is researching the development of the programs that control technical equipment in healthcare.

Have you heard of Therac-25?

It was a Canadian machine for radiotherapy that got an enormous amount of attention worldwide at the beginning of the 1980s.

Why?

A programming error meant that several patients received a dose of radiation that was 100 times stronger than intended. The software – that is the computer program that controls the physical machine (the hardware) – did not discover that the dose was wrong. So the healthcare staff didn’t either.

The result?

Three people died. Several more were seriously injured.

– Therac-25 is an extreme case. But it shows how serious it is when something goes wrong. One cannot start afresh and correct the error when someone has already died or been injured, says Christin Lindholm.

Christin Lindholm is the programme director for engineering programmes in computer technology and electrical engineering with automation at the School of Engineering in Campus Helsingborg, but she is also doing a PhD in the development of medical software.

Within the Faculty of Engineering, which is present in both Helsingborg and Lund, research is conducted into everything from nanotechnology to food.

One hundred per cent safety

With one foot in teaching and the other in research, she can be said to be a typical lecturer at the School of Engineering, which also trains engineers in the branches of architecture, railway construction and road and traffic technology.

Christin Lindholm’s research deals with quality and risks. To foresee, prevent and ensure that computer programs that control equipment are one hundred per cent safe. This is in part so-called action research.

– I take an active part in the development process. I attend development meetings and bring input and suggestions, says Christin Lindholm.

Even though the research deals with advanced knowledge in computer technology, the most difficult aspect so far has been to gain access to a company’s activity.

– Medical technology companies are severely controlled by laws and regulations. Competition for the market is tough. They are very concerned that technical details about their systems might be leaked to other companies, so it is hard to be allowed in. But once I was, I was very well received. They are happy to have me there, says Christin Lindholm.

There is a duty of confidentiality and Lindholm cannot even reveal the name of the company with which she is currently working.

Life is controlled by technology

One thing is certain: the more automation is included in a machine, the more work is required.

– Previously, medical technology systems consisted mainly of hardware: a machine which was manually controlled by healthcare professionals. Nowadays things are completely different. In every golf club there is a defibrillator. Anyone is supposed to be able to use it. The machine is supposed to take several decisions itself. That imposes a completely different set of requirements on it.

The relationship between human beings and technology fascinates Christin Lindholm. How both develop in symbiosis with one another, without the human being realising how much in life is controlled by technology.

– We create logical machines, but we are not as logical as you might think. This is a challenge for the entire development process. A software program is developed according to total logic, but the people who use it are controlled as much by experience and feelings. This is where the two can clash.