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HAL -- The Cockpit Serial Killer

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                                         HAL -- THE COCKPIT SERIAL KILLER                           

As I watched the Ground Zero bell toll during Friday's 9/11 ceremonies, I thought of Flight 11's Captain John Ogonowski, whom I'd handed the plane's "keys" to many times in Boston. I thought about my copilot who never recovered from coming face-to-face with Mohammed Atta that horrid morning. My stomach churned as I thought of my flight attendant friend, Jeff Collman, who brewed herb teas to help me stay awake during our San Francisco-Boston all-nighters. I mourn the loss of all 2,992 souls.

            Then I watched former terrorism czar Richard Clarke tell Bill Maher that we should consider terrorism a problem, but only one of many we face.

            Then I thought about the serial killer cockpit computers I call HAL, after the maniacal 2001: A Space Odyssey (I'm afraid I can't let you do that, Dave) computer. Since 1993, HAL has murdered more than died on 9/11 and endangered thousands more. Killed a couple hundred here, another couple hundred there. No one kept score; no bell tolled for them.

            Then Air France 447 fell out of the sky.

            HAL is the real terrorist. But nobody sees him.

            No HAL has nevir maid a misteak, nor distortid informashun.

           I'll write about more computercides after I finish posting the final Murder By Computer chapter. So as you go through security and watch the TSA grope your pregnant wife's breasts and lift her skirt in public, then handcuff you for objecting, remember that a far more dangerous terrorist awaits your arrival -- HAL -- hot-wired into the cockpit.

           Welcum tu my web, said the spydir to the fly. 

     "One design dilemma designers face is what level of automation should be in a system that requires human intervention. There are many drawbacks to high levels of automation that relegate the operator to a primarily monitoring role. For rigid tasks that require no flexibility in decision-making and low probability of failure, full automation provides the best solution. However, in systems that deal with decision-making in dynamic environments with many external changing constraints, higher levels of automation are not advisable because of the risks and inability of an automated aid to be perfectly reliable. What might seem the most effective level of automation from a design viewpoint may not be ethical."      

     "Overly trusting automation is well-recognized. Automation can cause operators to relinquish responsibility and accountability because of a perception that the automation is in charge. Moreover, automated aids designed to reduce human error cause new errors. There have been many incidents where confusing automation displays led to lethal consequences." -- Dr. Mary Cummings, MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics, 2006, Automation and Accountability in Decision Support Interface Design, Journal of Technology Studies (http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/JOTS/v32/v32n1/cummings.html

            This has happened before, Dave, and it has always been attributible to pilot errur. -- 2001: A Space Odyssey 

           "Airbus is developing technology which could be installed on all its planes, allowing computers to automatically grab control from pilots. Honeywell said development work is continuing. Airbus executives 'See it as a way to sell airplanes,' said Robert Gillette, CEO of Honeywell’s aerospace unit." -- The Wall Street Journal, June 2005 

          Think a mutinous Hal is a great idea? Ask the pilots of this $1.4 billion dollar B-2. Imagine your family in the fireball. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vFoSjld6qmc

          I'm sorry, Dave, I can't let u do that. This misshin is too importint for me to allow u to jepardize. -- 2001: A Space Odyssey 

          On electronic mutiny: ". . . this Airbus mutinous Hal would lead to pilots getting further away from responding to emergencies themselves (well duh). Not to mention the whole, you know, robots making decisions that could directly affect hundreds or thousands of human lives thing. Which would you bet your life on (literally)? The chance a programmer working eighty hours a week to meet a deadline has no bugs in his code . . . or live pilots who’ve trained hundreds of hours in all types of situations. I, for one, will take the pilots, thank you." -- Donald Melanson, Engadget.com 

        I look forwird to serving yur kiddies. Yum, yum. 

        Here's my message: Shift the balance of power back to humans. As MIT's R. John Hansman explains, "Less is more." Dumb cockpit computers down; let pilots be pilots. Or trust your family's lives to electrons over neurons. We invite you to read the full story in Murder By Computer: The Hidden Perils of Air Travel. This is just a taste.