Who’s in control?

The subject of artificial intelligence (AI) in an aircraft cockpit stirs-up reactions that are both passionate and pragmatic. Maybe, it’s a Marmite issue[1]. Mention of the subject triggers an instant judgement. 

Large passenger transport civil aircraft are flown by two human operators. Decisions are made by those two human operators. They are trained and acquire experience doing the job of flying. A word that has its origins in the marine world is used to describe their role – pilot.

One of my roles, early on in my career, was to lead the integration of a cockpit display system into a large new helicopter[2]. New, at the time. The design team, I was part of comprised of people with two different professional backgrounds. One had an engineering background, like me, and the other had qualification associated with psychology. The recognition that an aircraft cockpit is where the human and machine meet is not new. A lot of work was done in simulation with flight crews. 

The first generation of jet aircraft put the pilot in full-time command. It’s as we moved from purely mechanical interactions with aircraft, the balance of flight control has been shared between pilot and aircraft systems. There’s no doubt, in the numbers, that this has improved aviation safety.

Nobody is calling for the removal of aircraft autopilot systems. Much of the role of the formerly required flight engineer has been integrated into the aircraft systems. Information is compressed and summarised on flat screen displays in the aircraft cockpit.

Today, AI is not just one thing. There’s a myriad of different types and configurations, some of which are frozen and some of which are constantly changing as they learn and grow. That said, a flawless machine is a myth. Now, that’s a brave statement. We are generations away from a world where sentient machines produce ever better machines. It’s the stuff of SiFi.

As we have tried to make ever more capable machines, failures are a normal part of evolution. Those cycles of attempts and failures will need to lead into the billions and billions before human capabilities are fully matched. Yes, I know that’s an assertion, but it has taken humans more than a million years to get to have this discussion. That’s with our incredible brains.

What AI can do well is to enhance human capabilities[3]. Let’s say, of all the billions of combinations and permutations, an aircraft in flight can experience, a failure that is not expected, not trained, and not easily understood occurs. This is where the benefits and speed of AI can add a lot. Aircraft system using AI should be able to consider a massive number of potential scenarios and provide a selection of viable options to a flight crew. In time critical events AI can help.

The road where AI replaces a pilot in the cockpit is a dead end. The road where AI helps a pilot in managing a flight is well worth pursuing. Don’t set the goal at replacing humans. Set the goal at maximising the unique qualities of human capabilities.


[1] https://www.macmillandictionary.com/dictionary/british/marmite_2

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AgustaWestland_AW101

[3] https://hbr.org/2021/03/ai-should-augment-human-intelligence-not-replace-it

Author: johnwvincent

Our man in Southern England

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