• On automation: More from the aviation industry

    Here’s more from the October 2014 article by William Langewiesche that was a source for the 99 Percent Invisible episode I quoted on Sunday:

    First, you put the Clipper Skipper out to pasture, because he has the unilateral power to screw things up. You replace him with a teamwork concept—call it Crew Resource Management—that encourages checks and balances and requires pilots to take turns at flying. Now it takes two to screw things up. Next you automate the component systems so they require minimal human intervention, and you integrate them into a self-monitoring robotic whole. You throw in buckets of redundancy. You add flight management computers into which flight paths can be programmed on the ground, and you link them to autopilots capable of handling the airplane from the takeoff through the rollout after landing. […] As intended, the autonomy of pilots has been severely restricted, but the new airplanes deliver smoother, more accurate, and more efficient rides—and safer ones too.

    It is natural that some pilots object. […] [A]n Airbus man told me about an encounter between a British pilot and his superior at a Middle Eastern airline, in which the pilot complained that automation had taken the fun out of life. […]

    In the privacy of the cockpit and beyond public view, pilots have been relegated to mundane roles as system managers, expected to monitor the computers and sometimes to enter data via keyboards, but to keep their hands off the controls, and to intervene only in the rare event of a failure. […] Since the 1980s, when the shift began, the safety record has improved fivefold, to the current one fatal accident for every five million departures. No one can rationally advocate a return to the glamour of the past. […]

    Once you put pilots on automation, their manual abilities degrade and their flight-path awareness is dulled: flying becomes a monitoring task, an abstraction on a screen, a mind-numbing wait for the next hotel […] [a] process [] known as de-skilling. […]

    The automation is simply too compelling. The operational benefits outweigh the costs. The trend is toward more of it, not less. And after throwing away their crutches, many pilots today would lack the wherewithal to walk.

    Safer by design yet operationally boring, is this the future of medicine? A meaningful subset of it? Not in a million years?

    The rest is even better. Read the whole thing.

    @afrakt

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