Computers in transport: leading to disaster?

Article warns against tendency to let computers fly planes
In its column The Long Read, newspaper The Guardian publishes an article warning against the increasingly tendency to allow computers to fly planes, carry out security checks and – next on the list – drive our cars. This reliance on automation may be dangerously diminishing our skills.
Writer Tim Harford starts with a gripping, detailed description of what happened in the cockpit of Air France Flight 447, which took off from Rio de Janeiro on 31 May 2009 bound for Paris.
Inexperienced co-pilots and a captain who’d had one hour’s sleep the night before were in control of one of the most advanced planes in the world, an Airbus 330. The A330 has an autopilot to keep it flying on a programmed route, as well as having a sophisticated automation system called fly-by-wire.
As the captain rested, the young co-pilots had very little experience when something challenging occurred – a thunderstorm over the Atlantic, just north of the equator. As they pushed the plane further upwards to try to escape the storm, the autopilot and fly-by-wire failed. The captain returned to the cockpit but the plane had already stalled and was falling at more than 150 feet a second.
Harford gives other examples of cases where transport and traffic computers have failed.
“We are now on more lists than ever before, and computers have turned filing cabinets full of paper into instantly searchable, instantly actionable banks of data. Increasingly, computers are managing these databases, with no need for humans to get involved or even to understand what is happening. And the computers are often unaccountable: an algorithm that rates teachers and schools, Uber drivers or businesses on Google’s search, will typically be commercially confidential. Whatever errors or preconceptions have been programmed into the algorithm from the start, it is safe from scrutiny: those errors and preconceptions will be hard to challenge,” Harford writes.
“For all the power and the genuine usefulness of data, perhaps we have not yet acknowledged how imperfectly a tidy database maps on to a messy world. We fail to see that a computer that is a hundred times more accurate than a human, and a million times faster, will make 10,000 times as many mistakes. This is not to say that we should call for death to the databases and algorithms. There is at least some legitimate role for computerised attempts to investigate criminal suspects, and keep traffic flowing. But the database and the algorithm, like the autopilot, should be there to support human decision-making. If we rely on computers completely, disaster awaits.”
The full article can be read here.
The Guardian