Policy & AI

Today, the UK Government published an approach to Artificial Intelligence (AI)[1]. It’s in the form of a white paper. That’s a policy document creäte by the Government that sets out their proposals for future legislation.

This is a big step. Artificial Intelligence (AI) attracts both optimism and pessimism. Utopia and dystopia. There are a lot more people who sit in these opposing camps as there are who sit in the middle. It’s big. Unlike any technology that has been introduce to the whole populous.

On Friday last, I caught the film iRobot (2004)[2] showing early evening on Film 4. It’s difficult to believe this science fiction is nearly 20-years old and the short story of Isaac Asimov’s, on which it’s based is from the 1950s. AI is a fertile space for the imagination to range over a vast space.

Fictional speculation about AI has veered towards the dystopian end of the scale. Although that’s not the whole story by far. One example of good AI is the sentient android in the Star Trek universe. The android “Data” based on the USS Enterprise, strives to help humanity and be more like us. His attempt to understand human emotions are often significant plot points. He’s a useful counterpoint to evil alien intelligent machines that predictably aim to destroy us all.

Where fiction helps is to give an airing to lots of potential scenarios for the future. That’s not trivial. Policy on this rapidly advancing subject should not be narrowly based or dogmatic.

Where there isn’t a great debate is the high-level objectives that society should endeavour to achieve. We want technology to do no harm. We want technology to be trustworthy. We want technology to be understandable.

Yet, we know from experience, that meeting these objectives is much harder than asserting them. Politicians love to assert. In the practical world, it’s public regulators who will have to wrestle with the ambitions of industry, unforeseen outcomes, and negative public reactions.

Using the words “world leading” successively is no substitute for resourcing regulators to beef-up their capabilities when faced with rapid change. Vague and superficial speeches are fine in context. Afterall, there’s a job to be done maintaining public confidence in this revolutionary technology.

What’s evident is that we should not delude ourselves. This technical transformation is unlike any we have so far encountered. It’s radical nature and speed mean that even when Government and industry work together they are still going to be behind the curve.

As a fictional speculation an intelligent android who serves as a senior officer aboard a star ship is old school. Now, I wonder what we would make of an intelligent android standing for election and becoming a Member of Parliament?

[1] The UK’s AI Regulation white paper will be published on Wednesday, 29 March 2023. Organisations and individuals involved in the AI sector will be encouraged to provide feedback on the white paper through a consultation which launches today and will run until Tuesday, 21 June 2023.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I,_Robot_(film)

Radio on the hill

We take radio for granted. I’m listening to it, now. That magic of information transferred through the “ether[1]” at the speed of light and without wires. This mystery was unravelled first in the 19th century. Experimentation and mathematics provided insights into electromagnetics.

The practical applications of radio waves were soon recognised. The possibility of fast information transfer between A and B had implications for the communications and the battlefield.

It’s unfortunate to say that warfare often causes science to advance rapidly. The urgency to understand more is driven by strong needs. That phrase “needs must” comes to mind. We experienced this during the COVID pandemic. Science accelerated to meet the challenge.

It wasn’t until after he failed as an artist that Samuel Morse transformed communications by inventing the telegraph with his dots and dashes. There’s a telegraph gallery with a reproductions of Morse’s early equipment at the Locust Grove Estate[2] in Poughkeepsie. I’d recommend it.

The electromagnetic telegraph used wires to connect A and B. Clearly, that’s not useful if the aim is to connect an aircraft with the ground.

The imperative to make air-ground communication possible came from the first world war. Aviation’s role in warfare came to the fore. Not just in surveillance of the enemy but offensive actions too. Experimentation with airborne radio involved heavy batteries and early spark transmitters. Making such crude equipment usable was an immense challenge. 

Why am I writing about this subject? This week, on a whim I visited the museum at Biggen Hill. The Biggin Hill Museum[3] tells the story the pivotal role played by the fighter station in the second world war. The lesser-known story is the origins of the station.

It’s one of Britain’s oldest aerodromes and sits high up on the hills south of London. Biggin Hill is one of the highest points in that area, rising to over 210 metres (690 ft) above sea level. 

It’s transformation from agricultural fields to a research station (south camp) took place in 1916 and 1917. Its purpose was to explore the scientific and technical innovations of that time. Wireless in particular.  141 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was based at Biggin Hill and equipped with Bristol Fighters.[9] RFC were the first to take use of wireless telegraphy to assist with artillery targeting.

These were the years before the Royal Air Force (RAF) was formed.

100 years later, in early 2019, the Biggin Hill Museum opened its doors to the public. It’s a small museum but well worth a visit. I found the stories of the early development of airborne radio communications fascinating. So much we take for granted had to be invented, tested, and developed from the most elemental components.

POST 1: Now, I wish I’d be able to attand this lecture – Isle of Wight Branch: The Development of Airborne Wireless for the R.F.C. (aerosociety.com)

POST 2: The bigger story marconiheritage.org/ww1-air.html

[1] https://www.britannica.com/science/ether-theoretical-substance

[2] https://www.lgny.org/home

[3] https://bigginhillmuseum.com/

Digital toxicity

There’s a tendency to downplay the negative aspects of the digital transition that’s happening at pace. Perhaps it’s the acceptance of the inevitability of change and only hushed voices of objection.

A couple of simple changes struck me this week. One was my bank automatically moving me to an on-line statement and the other was a news story about local authorities removing pay machines from car parks on the assumption everyone has a mobile phone.

With these changes there’s a high likelihood that difficulties are going to be caused for a few people. Clearly, the calculation of the banks and local authorities is that the majority rules. Exclusion isn’t their greatest concern but saving money is high on their list of priorities.

The above aside, my intention was to write about more general toxic impacts of the fast-moving digital transition. Now, please don’t get me wrong. In most situations such a transition has widespread benefits. What’s of concern is the few mitigations for any downsides.

Let’s list a few negatives that may need more attention.

Addiction. With social media this is unquestionable[1]. Afterall digital algorithms are developed to get people engaged and keep them engaged for as long as possible. It’s the business model that brings in advertising revenues. There’s FOMO too. That’s a fear of missing out on something new or novel that others might see but you might miss out on.

Attention. Rapidly stroking a touch screen to move from image to image, or video to video encourages less attention to be given to any one piece of information. What research there is shows a general decline in the attention span[2] as a characteristic of being subject to increasing amounts of information, easily made available.

Adoration. Given that so many digital functions are provided with astonishing accuracy, availability, and speed there’s a natural inclination to trust their output. When that trust is justifiable for a high percentage of the time, the few times information is in error can easily be ignored or missed. This can lead to people defending or supporting information that is wrong[3] or misleading.

It’s reasonable to say there are downsides with any use of technology. That said, it’s as well to try to mitigate those that are known about and understood. The big problem is the cumulative effect of the downsides. This can increase fragility and vulnerability of the systems that we all depend upon.

If digital algorithms were medicines or drugs, there would be a whole array of tests conducted before their public release. Some would be strongly regulated. I’m not saying that’s the way to go but it’s a sobering thought.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/global/2021/aug/22/how-digital-media-turned-us-all-into-dopamine-addicts-and-what-we-can-do-to-break-the-cycle

[2] https://www.kcl.ac.uk/news/are-attention-spans-really-collapsing-data-shows-uk-public-are-worried-but-also-see-benefits-from-technology

[3] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-56718036


The long history of data communications between air and ground has had numerous stops and starts. It’s not new to use digital communications while flying around the globe. That said, it has not been cheap, and traditional systems have evolved only slowly. If we think Controller Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC)[1] is quite whizzy. It’s not. It belongs to a Windows 95 generation. Clunky messages and limited applications.

The sluggishness of adoption of digital communications in commercial aviation has been for several reasons. For one, standardised, certified, and maintainable systems and equipment have been expensive. It’s not just the purchase and installation but the connection charges that mount-up.

Unsurprisingly, aircraft operators have moved cautiously unless they can identify an income stream to be developed from airborne communication. That’s one reason why the passengers accessing the internet from their seats can have better connections than the two-crew in the cockpit.

Larger nations’ military flyers don’t have a problem spending money on airborne networking. For them it’s an integral part of being able to operate effectively. In the civil world, each part of the aviation system must make an economic contribution or be essential to safety to make the cut.

The regulatory material applicable to Airborne Communications, Navigation and Surveillance (CS-ACNS)[2] can be found in publications coming from the aviation authorities. This material has the purpose of ensuring a high level of safety and aircraft interoperability. Much of this generally applicable material has evolved slowly over the last 30-years.

Now, it’s good to ask – is this collection of legacy aviation system going to be changed by the new technologies that are rapidly coming on-stream this year? Or are the current mandatory equipage requirements likely to stay the same but be greatly enhanced by cheaper, faster, and lower latency digital connections?

This year, Starlink[3] is offering high-speed, in-flight internet connections with global connectivity. This company is not the only one developing Low Earth Orbit (LEO)[4] satellite communications. There are technical questions to be asked in respect of safety, performance, and interoperability but it’s a good bet that these new services will very capable and what’s more, not so expensive[5].

It’s time for airborne communications to step into the internet age.

NOTE: The author was a part of the EUROCAE/RTCA Special Committee 169 that created Minimum Operational Performance Standards for ATC Two-Way Data Link Communications back in the 1990s.

POST 1: Elon Musk’s Starlink Internet Service Coming to US Airlines; Free WiFi (businessinsider.com)

POST 2: With the mandate of VDLM2 we evolve at the pace of a snail. Internet Protocol (IP) Data Link may not be suitable for all uses but there’s a lot more that can be done.

[1] https://skybrary.aero/articles/controller-pilot-data-link-communications-cpdlc

[2] https://www.easa.europa.eu/en/document-library/easy-access-rules/easy-access-rules-airborne-communications-navigation-and

[3] https://www.starlink.com/

[4] https://www.esa.int/ESA_Multimedia/Images/2020/03/Low_Earth_orbit

[5] https://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2022/10/starlink-unveils-airplane-service-musk-says-its-like-using-internet-at-home/

Just H

What is the future of Hydrogen in Aviation? Good question. Every futurologist has a place for Hydrogen (H) in their predictions. However, the range of optimistic projections is almost matched by the number of pessimistic ones.

There’s no doubt that aircraft propulsion generated using H as a fuel can be done. There’s a variety of way of doing it but, the fact is, that it can be done. What’s less clear is a whole mass of factors related to economics, safety and security and desirability of having a hydrogen-based society.

H can be a clean form of energy[1], as in its purest form the process of combustion produces only water. We need to note that combustion processes are rarely completely pure.

It’s an abundant element but it prefers to be in company of other elements. Afterall, the planet is awash with H2O. When H is on its own it has no colour, odour, or taste. In low concentrations, we humans could be oblivious to it even though there’s a lot of it in the compounds that make us up.

Number one on the periodic table, it’s a tiny lightweight element that can find all sorts of ways of migrating from A to B. Ironically, that makes it an expensive element to move around in commercially useable quantities. H is often produced far away from where it’s used. For users like aviation, this makes the subject of distribution a fundamental one.

Part of the challenge of moving H around is finding ways of increasing its energy density. So, making it liquid or pumping it as a high-pressure gas are the most economic ways of using it. If this is to be done with a high level of safety and security, then this is not going to come cheap.

There are a lot of pictures of what happens when this goes wrong.  Looking back at the airships of the past there are numerous catastrophic events to reference. More relevantly, there’s the space industry to look at for spectacular failures[2]. A flammable hydrogen–air mixture doesn’t take much to set it off[3]. The upside is that H doesn’t hang around. Compared to other fuels H is likely to disperse quickly. It will not pool on the ground like Kerosene does.

In aviation super strict control procedure and maintenance requirements will certainly be needed. Every joint and connectors will need scrupulous attention. Every physical space where gas can accumulate will need a detection system and/or a fail proof vent.

This is a big new challenge to aircraft airworthiness. The trick is to learn from other industries.

NOTE: The picture. At 13:45 on 1 December 1783, Professor Jacques Charles and the Robert brothers launched a manned balloon in Paris. First manned hydrogen balloon flight was 240 years ago.

[1] https://knowledge.energyinst.org/collections/hydrogen

[2] https://appel.nasa.gov/2011/02/02/explosive-lessons-in-hydrogen-safety/


To provoke

Social media provocateurs are on the rise. Say something that’s a bit on the edge and wait for the avalanche of responses. It’s a way of getting traffic to a site. The scientific and technical sphere has these digital provocateurs less than the glossy magazine brigade, but the phenomena is growing.

Take a method or technique that is commonly used, challenge people to say why it’s good while branding it rubbish. It’s not a bad way to get clicks. This approach to the on-line world stimulates several typical responses.

One: Jump on-board. I agree the method is rubbish. Two: I’m a believer. You’re wrong and here’s why. Three: So, what? I’m going to argue for the sake of arguing. Four: Classical fence sitting. On the one hand you maybe right on the other hand you may be wrong.

Here’s one I saw recently about safety management[1]. You know those five-by-five risk matrices we use – they’re rubbish. They are subjective and unscientific. They give consultants the opportunity to escalate risks to make new work or they give managers the opportunity to deescalate risk to avoid doing more work. Now, that’s not a bad provocation. 

If the author starts by alleging all consultants and managers of being manipulative bad actors that sure is going to provoke a response. In safety management there are four pillars and one of them is safety culture. So, if there are manipulative bad actors applying the process there’s surely a poor safety culture which makes everything else moot.

This plays into the discomfort some people have with the inevitable subjectivity of risk classification. It’s true that safety risk classification uses quantitative and qualitative methods. However, most typically quantitative methods are used to support qualitative decisions.

There’s an in-built complication with any risk classification scheme. It’s one reason why three-by-three risk matrices are often inadequate. When boundaries are set there’s always the cases to decide for items that are marginally one side or other side of a prescribed line.

An assessment of safety risk is just that – an assessment. When we use the word “analysis” it’s the supporting work that is being referenced. Even an analysis contains estimations of the risk. This is particularly the case in calculations involving any kind of human action.

To say that this approach is not “scientific” is again a provocation. Science is far more than measuring phenomena. Far more than crunching numbers. It includes the judgement of experts. Yes, that judgement must be open to question. Testing and challenging is a good way of giving increased the credibility of conclusions drawn from risk assessment.

[1] https://publicapps.caa.co.uk/docs/33/CAP795_SMS_guidance_to_organisations.pdf

Artificial intelligence (AI) transition

There’s much that has been written on this subject. In fact, for a non-specialist observer it’s not so easy to get to grips with the different predictions and views that are buzzing around.

There’s absolutely no doubt that Artificial intelligence (AI) will change every corner of society. Maybe a few living off-grid in remote areas will remain untouched but every other human on the planet will be impacted by AI. Where there’s digital data there will be AI. Some will say this brings the benefits of AI into our everyday and others herald a pending nightmare where we lose control.

Neither maybe totally on the money but what’s clear is that this is no ordinary technological transition. Up until now, the software we use has been a tool. Built for a purpose and shaped by those who programmed its code. AI is not like that at all. It’s a step beyond just a tool.

Imagine wheeling a hammer that changed shape to suite a job, but the user had no control over the shape it took. How will we take to something so useful but beyond our immediate control?

In civil aviation, AI opens the possibility of autonomous flight, preventive maintenance, and optimal air traffic management. It may work with human operators or replace them in its more advanced future implementations. Even the thought of this causes some professional people to recoil.

I’ve just finished reading the book[1] of a former Google chief officer, Mo Gawdat and he starts off being pessimistic about the dangers of widespread general AI. As he moves through his arguments, the book points to us as the problem and not the machines. It’s what we teach AI that matters rather than the threat being intrinsic to the machine.

To me, that makes perfect sense. The notion of GIGO[2] or “Garbage In, Garbage Out” has been around as long as the computer. It does, however, put a big responsibility on those who provide the training data for AI or how that data is acquired.

Today’s social media gives us a glimpse of what happens when algorithms slavishly give us what we want. Anarchic public training from millions of hand-held devices can produce some undesirable and unpleasant outcomes.

It maybe that we need to move from a traditional software centric view of how these systems work to a more data centric view. If AI starts with poor training data, the outcome will be assuredly poor.

Gawdat dismisses the idea that general AI can be explainable. Whatever graphics or equations that may be contrived they are not going to give a useful representation of what goes on inside the machine after a period of running. An inability to explain the inner working of the AI maybe fine for non-critical applications but it’s a problem in relation to safety systems.

[1] Mo Gawdat. Scary Smart, the future of artificial intelligence and how you can save our world. 2021. ISBN 978-1-5290-7765-0.

[2] https://techterms.com/definition/gigo

High ALT

Normal commercial air traffic control doesn’t go beyond 60,000 ft in altitude. That makes sense since civil flying activities have been limited to lower altitudes. In fact, modern commercial airliners are not designed to fly above about 45,000 feet. This is a compromise based on what works commercially as much as what’s works best. Aircraft instruments are calibrated making standard assumption about the atmosphere.

For some of its flight, Concorde cruised at a height of 60,000 feet. More like a military jet, with its speed it had the capability to make use of higher altitudes.

It’s even possible to fly above 50,000 feet without an engine. The world record glider flight by AIRBUS shows it’s possible.

The Earth’s atmosphere is not uniform. It changes its characteristics with altitude. The atmosphere can be divided into five layers, as the temperature and density change. They are named: Troposphere, Stratosphere Mesosphere, Ionosphere and Exosphere. 

The Troposphere is a layer that goes from 8 kms (26,247 ft) on the poles to about 18 kms (59,055 ft) on the equator. This is the layer where weather is experienced.

On average, the Stratosphere goes up to about 40 kms (131,234 ft). The winds blows fast but they tend to be more consistent as they wrap around the globe. The lower portion of the Stratosphere is virtually isothermal (layer of constant temperature). 

A medieval English philosopher and Franciscan friar, Roger Bacon[1] figured out that the air might support a ship in the same way that water supports ships. In the 13th Century that was a nice academic conclusion but little more.

With all the current controversy surrounding high altitude balloons, that the road to flight started with balloons, could be said to be a bit ironic. It’s long been known about that balloons fly well at high altitudes but it’s a new frontier as far as commercial activity is concerned. For science, weather balloons may go up to 40 km to measure the high level winds.

Some experimental work has been done on trying to commercially use the airspace above normally civil flying. The Google Loon trials[2] are an example of an attempt to float a telecommunications platform high in the sky. These balloon trials were abandoned as difficulties proved greater than anticipated.

It’s not so easy to keep a high altitue balloon on-station.

Now, considering the news in North America, maybe high-altitude operations ought to be a matter of regulatory concern. This is not a subject that any one country can address alone.

There is some legal, regulatory and technical work[3] underway in Europe[4] but it needs to make progress. This is a subject for international collaboration. 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Bacon

[2] https://blog.x.company/loons-final-flight-e9d699123a96

[3] https://www.eurocontrol.int/article/echo-making-space-new-high-altitude-entrants

[4] https://www.eurocontrol.int/events/european-higher-airspace-operations-symposium

Over the Horizon

How often does the obvious comment need to be made? It’s Sunday 11th February and the new UK Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology has only been in the job for a few days.

UK Ministers Michelle Donelan latest utterance is straight out of the failed Brexit playbook. The UK is “ready to go it alone”, she says[1]. Let’s puff up our chests, money is no object, the UK doesn’t need to be part of the €95.5 billion Horizon Europe[2] programme of the EU. Or at least that’s what she and her colleagues seem to be saying.

The rather silly argument is made that the UK will work with the US, Switzerland, and Japan instead. Now, hang about, call me a bit crazy but couldn’t the UK do both?

There’s no way the UK can become a global science powerhouse without working with both the EU and the rest of the world. Well, with a few possible exceptions. Afterall, it would not be wise to be forging research links with Russia at the moment.

Partnerships and collaborations matter so much because so many great ideas are based on the work done by others.

Already the UK is seeing a decline in research students coming from Europe and China. The Home Secretary’s struggles to control migration with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer doesn’t help.

Yes, the UK has a history as an inventor and can be capable in science even if we pull up all the drawbridges but that’s incredibly limiting, commercially crazy and like throwing a damp blanket over future pioneers. Remember young talent is mobile.

I do remember the exit of UK talent that occurred in my student days (1979-82). I’d meet some of them later in my career working in aerospace companies all over the world.

Putting aside all the above, big money matters, but what matters more is opportunity.  That is fertile ground for innovation.

Contrary to UK Government Minister’s thinking this has nothing to do with de-regulation either.

Across the Atlantic we have a highly regulated country that still seems to be able to produce innovators that go on to change the world. There are more lawyers per square mile in the US than just about anywhere on Earth but that doesn’t stop that country being an incubator for ground-breaking innovation. [Says me, on my Windows PC with my iPhone charging next to my iPad.]

Today, the US Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is going to make funding available on a gigantic scale. The UK’s cash-strapped Government can’t match this US effort even if it wanted to do so.

Europe needs to work together. The UK needs to be one of the associated countries[3] to participate in Horizon Europe. The alternative is grim.

[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-eu-uk-science-horizon-b2280569.html

[2] https://research-and-innovation.ec.europa.eu/funding/funding-opportunities/funding-programmes-and-open-calls/horizon-europe_en

[3] https://sciencebusiness.net/news/Horizon-Europe/heres-what-first-two-years-horizon-europe-look-numbers