An open letter has been published. Not for the first time. It asks those working on Artificial Intelligence (AI) to take a deep breath and pause their work. It’s signed by AI experts and interested parties, like Elon Musk. This is a reaction to the competitive race to launch ever more powerful AI. For all technology launches, it’s taking fewer and fewer years to get to a billion users. If the subject was genetic manipulation the case for a cautious step-by-step approach would be easily understood. However, the digital world, and its impact on our society’s organisation isn’t viewed as important as genetics. Genetically Modified (GM) crops got people excited and anxious. An artificially modified social and political landscape doesn’t seem to concern people quite so much. It maybe, the basis for this ambivalence is a false view that we are more in control of one as opposed to the other. It’s more likely this ambivalence stems from a lack of knowledge. One response to the open letter I saw was thus: A lot of fearmongering luddites here! People were making similar comments about the pocket calculator at one time! This is to totally misunderstand what is going on with the rapid advance of AI. I think, the impact on society of the proliferation of AI will be greater than that of the invention of the internet. It will change the way we work, rest and play. It will do it at remarkable speed. We face an unprecedented challenge. I’m not for one moment advocating a regulatory regime that is driven by societal puritans. The open letter is not proposing a ban. What’s needed is a regulatory regime that can moderate aggressive advances so that knowledge can be acquired about the impacts of AI. Yesterday, a government policy was launched in the UK. The problem with saying that there will be no new regulators and regulators will need to act within existing powers is obvious. It’s a diversion of resources away from exiting priorities to address challenging new priorities. That, in of itself is not an original regulatory dilemma. It could be said, that’s why we have sewage pouring into rivers up and down the UK. In an interview, Conservative Minister Paul Scully MP mentioned sandboxing as a means of complying with policy. This is to create a “safe space” to try out a new AI system before launching it on the world. It’s a method of testing and trials that is useful to gain an understanding of conventional complex systems. The reason this is not easily workable for AI is that it’s not possible to build enough confidence that AI will be safe, secure and perform its intended function without running it live. For useful AI systems, even the slightest change in the start-up conditions or training can produce drastically different outcomes. A live AI system can be like shifting sand. It will build up a structure to solve problems, and do it well, but the characteristics of its internal workings will vary significantly from one similar system to another. Thus, the AI system’s workings, as they are run through a sandbox exercise may be unlike the same system’s workings running live. Which leads to the question – what confidence can a regulator, with an approval authority, have in a sandbox version of an AI system? Pause. Count to ten and work out what impacts we must avoid. And how to do it.
It’s not a universal rule. What is? There are a million and one ways that both good and bad things can happen in life. A million is way under any genuine calculation. Slight changes in decisions that are made can head us off in a completely different direction. So much fiction is based on this reality.
Yes, I have watched “Everything Everywhere All at Once”. I’m in two minds about my reaction. There’s no doubt that it has an original take on the theory of multiple universes and how they might interact. It surprised me in just how much comedy formed the core of the film. There are moments when the pace of the story left me wondering where on earth is this going? Overall, it is an enjoyable movie and its great to see such originality and imagination.
This strange notion of multiple universes, numbered beyond count, has an appeal but it’s more than a headful. What I mean is that trying to imagine what it looks like, if such a thing is possible, is almost hopeless. What I liked about the movie is that small difference are more probable and large difference are far less probable. So, to get to the worlds that are radically different from where you are it’s necessary to do something extremely improbable.
Anyway, that’s not what I’m writing about this morning. I’ve just been reading a bit about Sir Robert Alexander Watson Watt. The man credited with giving us radar technology.
Perfect is the enemy of good is a dictum that’s has several attributions. It keeps coming up. Some people celebrate those who strive for perfection. However, in human affairs, perfection, is an extremely improbable outcome in most situations. There’s a lot of talent and perspiration needed to jump from average to perfect in any walk of life.
What the dictum above shorthand’s is that throwing massive amounts of effort at a problem can prevent a good outcome. Striving for perfection, faced with our human condition, can be a negative.
That fits well with me. My experience of research, design and development suggested the value of incremental improvement and not waiting for perfect answers to arise from ever more work. It’s the problem with research funding. Every paper calls for more research to be done.
In aviation safety work the Pareto principle is invaluable. It can be explained by a ghastly Americanisms. Namely, let’s address the “low hanging fruit” first. In other words, let’s make the easiest improvements, that produce the biggest differences, first.
I’m right on-board with Robert Watson-Watt and his “cult of the imperfect”. He’s quoted saying: “Give them the third best to go on with; the second best comes too late, the best never comes”. It’s to say do enough of what works now without agonising over all the other possible better ways. Don’t procrastinate (too much).
Radio on the hill
We take radio for granted. I’m listening to it, now. That magic of information transferred through the “ether” 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 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 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. 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
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. 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 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 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.
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) 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) 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 is offering high-speed, in-flight internet connections with global connectivity. This company is not the only one developing Low Earth Orbit (LEO) 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.
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.
Isabel Oakeshott is interviewed. We are no wiser. The ins and outs of the story of Conservative Government Ministers during the COVID pandemic lockdowns is a story that will be written a thousand times. Hectares of the social media landscape will repeat every embarrassing blunder and poorly thought-out assertion. These ins and outs need to be dissected but it’s not work for those tying to improve their mental health.
People who have had some exposure to British politics often love “Yes Minister”, the BBC series that overflowed with wit, twists and turns. It lifted the lid on the stumbling workings of Whitehall and the political class. At the time the series was made there were no mobile phones in every pocket and paper was still king. Civil servants carried bundles of files down endless corridors. This wood panelled and stuffy environment was a commonplace image.
Opening a file really meant getting a folder and putting numerous memos and reports in it. Staking it high with the record of decision-making for future generations of historians to dissect.
In the 1970s, the speed of communication was mitigated by the medium. When it came to paper trails, that was a relatively human speed. Typed up memos were rarely dashed off without a thought. Documents were released with an official stamp and multiple signatories.
Fast forward to the 2020s. Office desks appear totally different from the past, that is if one exists at all. Mobiles have concentrated super-fast digital communication tools into the palm of a hand.
That said, official and unofficial communication channels continue to play their part in the corridors of power. What is shocking, in the current news stories is just how much the unofficial communication channels seem to dominate.
Afterall, we are not taking about a release of official Government emails. It’s worth asking; why are Government Ministers using WhatsApp so much? It’s a widely available commercial messaging application owned by the US company Meta.
Is the machinery of political governance getting so lax in the UK that we are behold unto a messaging mobile App over which we have no control what-so-ever?
Globally, WhatsApp may have over 2 billion users but that’s no guarantee of its integrity. The system does get hacked. Ministers using unofficial communication channels as if they were totally within their control are foolish, unethical, and naïve, to say the least.
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, 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. A flammable hydrogen–air mixture doesn’t take much to set it off. 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.
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. 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.
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 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 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.
 Mo Gawdat. Scary Smart, the future of artificial intelligence and how you can save our world. 2021. ISBN 978-1-5290-7765-0.
Fatal accident in Nepal 3
The air transport year started badly. A Yeti Airlines twin-engine ATR 72-500 aircraft plunged into a gorge as it was approaching Pokhara International Airport (PKR) in Nepal.
Singapore’s Ministry of Transport (MOT) is supporting Nepalese authorities.
The latest news is that the aircraft’s Flight Data Recorder (FDR) and Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) have been replayed. It is reported that the analysis of the FDR and CVR data shows that the propellers of both engines were feathered during approach.
It is not known if this was due to the actions of the crew or a technical fault.
The investigation continues.
The propellers on this aircraft type have pitch control of their blades. The pitch of the blades can be changed to the “feather” position (approximately 90 degrees). Feathered blades reduces the drag that would occur in the event of an engine shutdown.
This event occurring while the aircraft is slowing on approach will have an impact on the aircraft’s air speed. Monitoring air speed on approach is vital.
The suspicion that the aircraft may have stalled remains one theory.
The normal actions required on an approach are called up on a checklist.
Example: Here is a video of an ATR 72-500 landing.
Notice the pilots’ hands at 4:57 minutes in.
An incident involving an aircraft of the ATR 72 type on the way from Stockholm to Visby is interesting but may not be relevant in the Yeti Airlines case.