There is an old futurist saying about complex jobs once done by humans: “The factory of the future will only have two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment.”
Sooner or later, we are going to have to come to terms with the fact that humans are the largest single point of failure in most situations. We are easily distracted, perform inconsistently, and are affected by emotions and other externalities in ways that can compromise performance and cost lives. What is even scarier is that when we take part in something like commercial flight, hundreds of people’s lives are in the hands of one or two individuals.
In the case of the Germanwings’ flight that crashed in the Alps, it has become apparent that the crash was deliberate. The pilot went to the bathroom, leaving the co-pilot in charge, and upon returning found the door locked as it was supposed to be. But when the captain knocked, there was no answer and so he continued knocking and can be heard on the cockpit recording, repeatedly identifying himself and trying to break the down the door as the co-pilot deliberately sets the controls of the plane to slowly descend. The passengers can be heard on the recording screaming and “you can hear human breathing in the cockpit up until the moment of impact.”
I am not re-telling this chilling story to instill fear, but to bring up the real question here of when we, as a society, determine we are better off with a computer in charge than a person. Already when you are on a plane, during the the majority of time spent in the air, the plane is being flown by autopilot. Seconds after take off, the airplane’s software takes over and in many cases even does the landing. A former Navy pilot and associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT calls most of the activities of a commercial pilot these days as “babysitting.”
Thousands of planes we term as “unmanned aerial vehicles” or “drones” are already being flown daily by the military, with twice as many pilots being trained for ground-based flight operations than for flying in fighter jets. In the past, a plane required five people in the cockpit, including a flight engineer, a radio operator and a navigator, but now, with the number at two (a pilot and co-pilot), it begets the question of when we might require zero. The CEO of Boeing, James Albaugh, said at a conference in 2011 that “a pilotless airliner is going to come; it’s just a question of when.”
This question of “when” is something I spend a lot of time thinking about, and not just with airlines, but with other technologies like cars. The odds of dying in a plane crash are surprisingly low, a Harvard study from 2006 puts the odds at 1 in 11 million, and flying (because of advances in technology) is getting even safer as time goes on, with just 265 deaths in 2013. On the other hand, the odds of dying in a car accident are surprisingly high, with the odds in the US as high as 1 in 5000 and with over a millions deaths a year worldwide. The level of safety we have to reach for autonomous cars to be safer than human-driven cars is much lower and many companies are now in a race to bring autonomous cars to the market.
In the next few months, Tesla’s Model S will have an autopilot feature for highways that enables them to be driven handsfree from on-ramp to exit-ramp. As I write this, a self-driving car from Delphi is on a 3,000 mile journey across the US. The time is for autonomous cars is now (and the next 5 years), yet only a few years ago this would have seemed impossible. I believe we are on the same trajectory with airplanes.
If we can work out all of the details of driverless cars, which have to deal with all sorts of pedestrian-created complications that a plane does not have to, I think fully autonomous planes cannot be too far off (10-15 years). Part of the transition in cars as well as planes, is going to involve an acceptance in the mind of passengers that they are safer with a computer in control than they are with a human at the helm. Imagine a time in the near future when you take an autonomous car to the airport, get on an autonomous tram to your gate, and then get board an autonomous plane to your destination. If it means a safer world, I am okay with humanless transportation, are you?