The Human/Machine Team: Part 1

One of our previous posts, entitled “Contemporary Cockpits: No Place for Luggage or Dogs,” was an introduction to a multi-part series that discusses what we know about the human-machine relationship, and what others from outside aviation have learned and applied in the last decade. Recent accidents and the media attention they’ve attracted has brought this issue to the front pages for over 4 years (during that notorious 4-month stretch in 2009, transport aviation suffered the tragic loss of 4 advanced civil transports on 3 continents and over one ocean). In some cases, these reports have distorted the perception of the mutual roles that technology and the humans who operate it play in 21st-Century aviation. Not just for those outside of our industry, but for some of our own colleagues, as well.

At the beginning of the millennium it was forecast that unmanned aerial systems of all types and sizes would be part of our daily lives by now – providing everything from local traffic reporting, to crop monitoring, and even package delivery in some locations (we used to call them drones, among other labels, but they are now known officially as “UAS”). That we are still even discussing the matter publicly suggests the complexity of automating highly complex activities in which humans play a critical role in keeping safe and flexible. Just last month the FAA published its “roadmap” for UAS integration in civil airspace – outlining plans for future integration. It’s precisely in this complexity that we confront the natural capabilities of the human component of this powerful combination. In Automation Airmanship we emphasize the importance of a rigorous, disciplined practice of contemporary airmanship that is centered on nine principles that incorporate an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of both the technology and the human operator.

AI researchers Max Versace and Ben Chandler use the “humble rat” to illustrate the power of general-purpose “wetware” (the brain) to solve tasks with much better results than specialized hardware and software currently defining the leading edge of AI:

“First, a hungry rat will explore creatively for food. It might follow familiar, memorized routes that it has learned are safe, but at the same time it must integrate signals from different senses as it encounters various objects in the environment. The rat can recognize dangerous objects such as a mousetrap and will often avoid them even though it may never have seen the object at that particular angle before. After eating, the rat can quickly disengage its current plan and switch to its next priority. All these simultaneous challenges with all their varied complexities are impractical for a machine, because you can’t fit a computer that size into a vehicle smaller than a semi.”

The challenge for a flight crew of taxiing a fully-loaded advanced transport, in low-visibility conditions, at a large airport is far more complicated than a hungry rat searching for food. But the illustration is a glimpse into how important a highly-trained, proficient and rested crew is to the safety of the global aviation system, and how far off into the future automating this function really is.

Like many of you, recently I was intrigued by Amazon’s unveiling of its future delivery concept on the weekly tv newsmagazine, 60 Minutes. In the report, Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos proposes to the journalist Charlie Rose the eventuality of using small octocopters to deliver small items right to consumers’ doorsteps. Honestly, my first thought was of my neighbor’s mischievous 12-year old waiting in his cammo’s behind the front yard hedge with his paintball gun, ready to take down the first Amazon octocopter to come down the street (I swear that kid has the imagination of a hungry rat). Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos stated that depending on the FAA, the concept could be reality by 2015. My prediction is that my neighbor’s kid will be well into middle-age before the first package is delivered on our block.

Here’s our point: while being clear supporters of carefully designed and integrated technology, we acknowledge the reality that for both today, and for decades into the future, the role of a knowledgeable, well-trained crew, acting in disciplined yet flexible combination with reliable technology, is the greatest multiplier for safety in the global airspace. We are not “watching the controls” while the engineers, manufacturers, regulators, and others move our replacements into service around the world. And we have much more work ahead of us in assuring the safety of all human-machine systems.

Next month, we look at the strengths – and weaknesses – that are hallmarks of the other half of the human-machine team.

Until our next report, fly safe and fly first.

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