Cockpit Computers 9 -- Unsafe At Any Speed

11/16/2010 09:15 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Killer Flight Displays 1

The phone conversations between Sam Fleishman and myself continue around themes in my forthcoming Murder By Computer.

Sam: "How could those Boeing 737 pilots landing at Schiphol not see the speed getting too slow when it must have been right in front of their eyes?"

John: "Because they were looking at an overly-complex display like this 777's."

Sam: "What did the Schiphol accident board find"?

John: "The Dutch NTSB blamed Boeing for ignoring computer problem red flags across eight years from 2001 that crescendoed in this 2009 crash that murdered nine, including four Americans. Fifty were hospitalized. This despite MIT's Dr. Nancy Leveson's 2004 warning, "Never trust human life solely on software."

Sam: "Go on."

John: "Drs. Nadine Sarter and Chris Wickens laser-tracked where expert 747 pilots looked during simulator flights. 100 percent did not see the Computer make a critical mistake, though they looked right at that display. Not one pilot during the 'flights' noticed the autothrottles make a deadly error, just like Schiphol . . ."

Sam: "So . . . science knew about this problem way back in 2004?"

John: "Exactly; pilots in the Sarter-Wickens study not only missed most changes the display didn't highlight, but also missed half of those that were."

Sam: "Holy cow; the pilots might as well have turned that display off. Do Drs. Sarter and Wickens explain what the problem is?"

John: "Yes; that display is too craplex -- too much for the brain to process. What's really important right now gets smothered in a swarm of bees."

Sam: "Though the Schiphol pilots looked right at their display? Hard to swallow, John."

John: "Understand; let's make you that captain on final approach at Schiphol and this next clip your display. You must catch all ten changes, or the plane will crash and people will die -- no do-overs. Okay, off you go."

Sam: "Ten? I saw three."

John: "Bang, you're dead."

Sam: "How could I possibly not see seven?"

John: "Because you're human -- we assume that what we see is what our eyes see, then report to the brain. But our eyes trash much information, then leave it to the brain to make up the rest. Yale's Dr. Brian Scholl explains, 'We fail to perceive major things going on in front of our eyes.'"

Sam: "You pilots are screwed."

John: "Yeah; Harvard's Daniel Simons and Kent State's Daniel Leven find that your brain builds a fleeting gist of scenes, then throws away the details. Dr. Susan Blackmore labels what we see a 'grand illusion.'"

Sam: "Does anyone know what causes this . . . blindness?"

John: "Brown University's Drs. Luiz Pessoa and Leslie Ungerleider theorize the problem lies in your frontal and right parietal lobes -- where your baseball cap sits."

John: "Sorry, clicked Homer by mistake. Here . . ."

John: "Drs. Pessoa and Ungerleider MRI'd brains and found that humans can look right at something -- the speed slowing at Schiphol -- yet not see the change. They discovered that wrong answers trigger the identical brain neurons as right answers."

Sam: "Meaning our brains can see something wrong and think that it's all right?"

John: "Yes."

Sam: "That explains the British FAA's finding that pilots can chase a computer trap, but then do the wrong thing and make the situation worse."

John: "And crash at Schiphol; this is a negative human trait based on millions of years of evolution that's incompatible with these craplex displays."

Sam: "Please don't tell me we've known this since that '96 FAA Report On Automation."

John: "They showed their concern by featuring this craplex 747-400 display."

Sam: "Look at all that junk; the industry hasn't fixed the problem after all these years?"

John: "Never fear; the government has their top dogs working the problem."

John: "Now that you're smart, Sam, check out this more-craplex Airbus A380 display in their brand-new, double-decker, 900-passenger Superjumbo."

Sam: "Oh, Lord . . . were that plane at Schiphol. How the heck do we fix this mess?"

John: "MIT's Dr. R. John Hansman lectures, 'Less is more.' We gotta dumb these displays down. Dr. Hansman explains that problems come from increasingly craplex computers programmed atop older craplex computers to save money, leading to unwieldy systems, forcing pilots to compensate. He mused in 2001 that ever-increasing craplexity will continue until Designers are disciplined to limit the craplexity of their computers."

Sam: "The FAA in 1996, Hansman in 2001? Designers haven't learned? How many deaths will it take till they know too many people have died? How do we fix this mess?"

"Albert Einstein said, 'No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it.' World governments are gonna have to force planemakers to bring in outside experts like Apple's Steve Jobs and MIT's Nancy Leveson to take us Back To The Future to less craplex displays the human brain can decipher. Sir Arthur C. Clarke showed us the answer in 1968."

To be continued


Boeing 777.