The Fatal Silence of Autopilots

The Fatal Silence of Autopilots

The Fatal Silence of Autopilots

Science, technology, and life.
Feb. 18 2009 4:16 PM

The Fatal Silence of Autopilots

Horrifying update posted this afternoon by the New York Times , following up last night's report by the Wall Street Journal :

A re-creation of the last moments of the plane that crashed in Buffalo Thursday night, based on data from the "black boxes," shows that the crew may have overreacted to an automatic system that was trying to protect the aircraft from flying too slowly and crashing from an aerodynamic stall. ... investigators have developed a theory that after the automatic system pointed down the nose of the plane to generate speed, the crew may have overreacted by yanking back on the yoke and pointing the nose too high ...

The plane, Continental Connection Flight 3407, from Newark to Buffalo, was flying on auto-pilot. ... [W]hen the "stick-pusher," which takes control of the plane and points the nose down, activated and the autopilot kicked off, the crew tried to increase power. Apparently there was not enough altitude or time to recover control, however. The stick-pusher may have activated at a speed higher than normal because it added a margin of safety to account for icing conditions, investigators say.

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In other words, the human crew misunderstood what the autopilot was doing and why, and this misunderstanding caused the crash. If the autopilot had been a human being, a five-second conversation could have resolved the misunderstanding. But autopilots can't talk. They're designed to perform calculations and adjust the plane without humans having to understand their reasons.

If this theory of the crash turns out to be true, it'll go down in history as a tragic flaw in early generations of artificial intelligence, at the cost of 50 lives.