After Germanwings Flight 9525, Can We Automate Planes?

Automation is on the rise in areas previously regarded as beyond the reach of machines.

Politicians and safety organizations are leaving no stone unturned as they investigate the tragic crash of Germanwings Flight 9525, but as mounting evidence suggests co-pilot Andreas Lubitz purposely dove the plane into a mountainside, usual talk of preventing such accidents in the future has fallen short. It seems there is a point past which problems cannot be solved.


A basic level of public trust is essential to conduct any action involving a community of people and Lubitz violated that trust in grotesque and horrifying fashion. Is it crass to speak of mechanical failsafes to public trust — namely, automating planes such that no human could torpedo them into the ground?

The Pentagon is already leading the way on autonomous-flying technology, equipping its F16s to take off, land, and perform mid-air maneuvers on their own. The purpose is to automate training runs for F16 pilots, but the technology could have obvious applications elsewhere.

The cockpit door that co-pilot Lubitz locked was intended to be one such failsafe, keeping out hijackers at the moment of mutiny. How could we suspect that a pilot, having gone through years of training, would use the lock to keep out his fellow pilot while he purposefully crashed the jet? That kind of suspicion seems deeply cynical.

Nonetheless, automation is on the rise in areas previously regarded as beyond the reach of machines. Programming techniques called "deep learning" already allow computers to grasp difficult subjects like tax law that once required a professional to understand (and now requires a TurboTax software download). Next up, according to Andrew McAfee of the MIT Sloan School of Management, are lawyers, writers, and psychiatrists:

"The median American worker doesn’t do manual labor anymore. The average American worker is not a ditch digger. But they’re also not doing incredibly high-end particle physics or data science. They are what you’d call the somewhat routine knowledge worker. That is right in the sweet spot of where technology is making its greatest inroads."

But are we prepared to take humans out of the equation entirely, fully trusting machines to drive our cars and drive us to and fro? If automation is motivated by a corrosion of trust in human capabilities, would such a transition be worth it?

Read more at The New Yorker.

How to vaccinate the world’s most vulnerable? Build global partnerships.

Pfizer's partnerships strengthen their ability to deliver vaccines in developing countries.

Susan Silbermann, Global President of Pfizer Vaccines, looks on as a health care worker administers a vaccine in Rwanda. Photo: Courtesy of Pfizer.
Sponsored
  • Community healthcare workers face many challenges in their work, including often traveling far distances to see their clients
  • Pfizer is helping to drive the UN's sustainable development goals through partnerships.
  • Pfizer partnered with AMP and the World Health Organization to develop a training program for healthcare workers.
Keep reading Show less

Why the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner won’t feature a comedian in 2019

It's the first time the association hasn't hired a comedian in 16 years.

(Photo by Anna Webber/Getty Images for Vulture Festival)
Culture & Religion
  • The 2018 WHCA ended in controversy after comedian Michelle Wolf made jokes some considered to be offensive.
  • The WHCA apologized for Wolf's jokes, though some journalists and many comedians backed the comedian and decried arguments in favor of limiting the types of speech permitted at the event.
  • Ron Chernow, who penned a bestselling biography of Alexander Hamilton, will speak at next year's dinner.
Keep reading Show less

Juice is terrible for children. Why do we keep giving it to them?

A glass of juice has as much sugar, ounce for ounce, as a full-calorie soda. And those vitamins do almost nothing.

Pixabay user Stocksnap
popular

Quick: think back to childhood (if you've reached the scary clown you've gone too far). What did your parents or guardians give you to keep you quiet? If you're anything like most parents, it was juice. But here's the thing: juice is bad for you. 

Keep reading Show less

A new study says alcohol changes how the brain creates memories

A study on flies may hold the key to future addiction treatments.

Scott Barbour/Getty Images
Mind & Brain
  • A new study suggests that drinking alcohol can affect how memories are stored away as good or bad.
  • This may have drastic implications for how addiction is caused and how people recall intoxication.
  • The findings may one day lead to a new form of treatment for those suffering from addiction.
Keep reading Show less