God Is My Autopilot

God Is My Autopilot

God Is My Autopilot

Science, technology, and life.
Feb. 19 2009 8:37 AM

God Is My Autopilot

Is flying airplanes too dangerous to be left to humans?

That's one possibility emerging from for last week's passenger jet crash in Buffalo, N.Y. So far, the investigation has found no mechanical or autopilot failure. To the contrary, a reconstruction based on flight-recorder data indicates that the crew may have caused the crash by mismanaging or overriding the autopilot . Here are the theories in play as of this morning.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.


Theory 1: Take the controls away from the machine. The argument here is that difficult conditions require human attention and judgment. "The pilot did not disengage the autopilot after encountering what was noted to be 'significant ice'—disregarding recommendations from the [National Transportation Safety Board] and his own airline," the Associated Press reports . Accordingly, the NTSB will study "whether the recommendation should be a requirement."

Theory 2: Teach the humans how to read and collaborate with the machine's intentions. This is the scenario we looked at yesterday : that the plane's crew misunderstood what the autopilot was doing and why, and that this misunderstanding caused the crash. Today's Wall Street Journal adds more evidence to this scenario:

The safety board, among other issues, is looking into why [the airline's] training programs apparently stop short of allowing pilots in simulators to feel the stick-pusher activate. ... The device is intended to automatically prevent the plane from going into a stall by pointing the nose down to regain speed. Safety experts worry that unless pilots understand and feel what happens when the stick-pusher goes into action in a simulator, they may not react properly when it activates during an in-flight emergency. In 2004, a [same-company] commuter jet went out of control at a high altitude, both its engines shut down, and it ultimately crashed, killing both pilots. Among other mistakes, the pilots fought the stick-pusher. ... [T]he board specifically called for a blue-ribbon panel of experts to examine ways to make pilots more familiar and comfortable with the operation of stick-pusher systems.

Theory 3: Take the controls away from the humans. This is a more radical version of Theory 2. On this view, human pilots shouldn't be trusted to override the machine's superior judgment. To prevent such intervention, we can engineer flight controls to let a computer override the pilot. Today's New York Times explains how :

The crash last week could renew a debate about how much authority the crew should have over an airplane. In fly-by-wire aircraft—in which the crew's control is through a computer rather than a direct mechanical link to flight control surfaces—one manufacturer, Airbus, interposes computer logic between the human and the machine. If the pilot's manipulation of the controls is too severe, the computer will specify a more moderate path.

Yesterday, going on Theory 2, I implied that the remedy for what happened in Buffalo might be to upgrade autopilots so that humans, at the speed of conversation, could query the machine's reasons for acting. But maybe that's the long-term remedy. Maybe the short-term remedy is to give the machine the final say.