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.


Is Airworthiness dead?

Now, there’s a provocative proposition. Is Airworthiness dead? How you answer may depend somewhat on what you take to be the definition of airworthiness.

I think the place to start is the internationally agreed definition in the ICAO Annexes[1] and associated manuals[2]. Here “Airworthy” is defined as: The status of an aircraft, engine, propeller or part when it conforms to its approved design and is in a condition for safe operation.

Right away we start with a two-part definition. There’s a need for conformity and safety. Some might say that they are one and the same. That is, that conformity with an approved design equals safety. That statement always makes me uneasy given that, however hard we work, we know approved designs are not perfect, and can’t be perfect.

The connection between airworthiness and safety seems obvious. An aircraft deemed unsafe is unlikely to be considered airworthy. However, the caveat there is that centred around the degree of safety. Say, an aircraft maybe considered airworthy enough to make a ferry flight but not to carry passengers on that flight. Safety, that freedom from danger is a particular level of freedom.

At one end is that which is thought to be absolutely safe, and at the other end is a boundary beyond which an aircraft is unsafe. When evaluating what is designated as “unsafe” a whole set of detailed criteria are called into action[3].

Dictionaries often give a simpler definition of airworthiness as “fit to fly.” This is a common definition that is comforting and explainable. Anyone might ask: is a vehicle fit to make a journey through air or across sea[4] or land[5]? That is “fit” in the sense of providing an acceptable means of travel. Acceptable in terms of risk to the vehicle, and any person or cargo travelling or 3rd parties on route. In fact, “worthiness” itself is a question of suitability.

My provocative proposition isn’t aimed at the fundamental need for safety. The part of Airworthiness meaning in a condition for safe operation is universal and indisputable. The part that needs exploring is the part that equates of safety and conformity.

A great deal of my engineering career has been accepting the importance of configuration management[6]. Always ensuring that the intended configuration of systems, equipment or components is exactly what is need for a given activity or situation. Significant resources can be expended ensuing that the given configuration meets a defined specification.

The assumption has always been that once a marker has been set down and proven, then repeating a process will produce a good (safe) outcome. Reproducibility becomes fundamental. When dealing with physical products this works well. It’s the foundation of approved designs.

But what happens when the function and characteristics of a product change as it is used? For example, an expert system learns from experience. On day one, a given set of inputs may produce predicable outputs. On day one hundred, when subject to the same stimulus those outputs may have changed significantly. No longer do we experience steadfast repeatable.

So, what does conformity mean in such situations? There’s the crux of the matter.

[1] ICAO Annex 8, Airworthiness of Aircraft. ISBN 978-92-9231-518-4

[2] ICAO Doc 9760, Airworthiness Manual. ISBN 978-92-9265-135-0


[4] Seaworthiness: the fact that a ship is in a good enough condition to travel safely on the sea.

[5] Roadworthy: (of a vehicle) in good enough condition to be driven without danger.