The Robots are Coming

A casual discussion about the automation of work and the decreasing relevance of humans to productivity.

The Crash of Air France Flight 447

February 05, 2016

This Vanity Fair article examines the 2009 crash of Air France flight 447, which went down in the Atlantic en route from Brazil to France. The ostensible reason for the crash was a stall caused by faulty air speed reporting, due to an iced-over air speed indicator.

However, the more subtle, sinister cause of the crash might be that the pilots just weren’t prepared for anything to go wrong, A pilot should be able to recover from a stall, yet these pilots could not.

To put it briefly, automation has made it more and more unlikely that ordinary airline pilots will ever have to face a raw crisis in flight—but also more and more unlikely that they will be able to cope with such a crisis if one arises.

Clearly, when the technology failed, human error became a factor:

The solution was simple, and fundamental to flying. All Bonin had to do was to lower the nose to a normal cruising pitch—about to the horizon—and leave the thrust alone. The airplane would have returned to cruising flight at the same speed as before, even if that speed could not for the moment be known.

But Bonin continued to pull back on the stick, jerkily pitching the nose higher.

When the machines failed, the pilots couldn’t pick up the slack. Had their skills atrophied over the years as they had less and less to do in the cockpit?

Planes are simply insanely safe these days, The biggest problem seems to come from when the plane has to interact with the pilot:

[...] the accident rate has plummeted to such a degree that some investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board have recently retired early for lack of activity in the field. There is simply no arguing with the success of the automation. The designers behind it are among the greatest unheralded heroes of our time. Still, accidents continue to happen, and many of them are now caused by confusion in the interface between the pilot and a semi-robotic machine. Specialists have sounded the warnings about this for years: automation complexity comes with side effects that are often unintended.

Should planes just be completely automated?