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Wednesday, 28 October 2009

The folly of relying on a machine to think

It seems that six months do not pass by anymore without an airline incident in which the primary cause was the pilot relying on a computer to fly the plane for him. In a day in which it costs years of training and upwards of $100,000 to become a commercial pilot, pilots increasingly have less flying and more paperwork to occupy their attention. A case in point is the recent incident in which Northwest Airlines Flight 188 overshot its target by 150 miles while in a self-imposed cone of silence. Why? Both flight officers were busy working on their laptops while they let the computer fly the plane. Paperwork had so consumed their working life that a machine had been left to do their job--but without having access to the tools it needed to do it right.

What is so ridiculous about this is that although GPS has been available for over two decades, it's still not used to control the computers that fly all commercial airliners to their destinations. Although the technology is certainly available to prevent this sort of incident, nobody suggests using it. Instead they blame the pilots, when it is the system more than anything else that is broken.

In yet another classic, but far more tragic, example of this, a Navy minesweeper ran aground in the sacred waters of a Philippine reef. The cause? Relying on a GPS to tell them where the reef was, rather than looking at the sea charts. The GPS being a mere 8 miles off in its approximation has resulted in the sacking of the ship's commanding officer, executive officer, quartermaster, and officer of the deck--and a cost of at least $27 million to the US Navy. That's $25 million to scrap the ship, and $2 million to placate the reef's patron goddess.

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