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Friday, September 9, 2011

Automation Addiction

The media has picked up on the current catchphrase in air transportation, “automation addiction”.  It refers to the over reliance of a pilot or crew on the auto-flight management system of todays modern airliners.  Conventional wisdom says the solution is for pilots to operate the aircraft in the manual mode more often, referred to as “hand flying”.

These flight management computers, and there are many of them on any given airliner, once programmed can operate the aircraft systems and navigate it vertically and horizontally for many hours without further human input or supervision.  There are even visual and audio reminders to alert the crew when they have not made any inputs to the aircraft for an extended period.  As long as the assumptions programmed into the computers don’t change and there are no hardware or software failures, everything works out ok.  Since assumptions do change and there are mechanical and technological  failures, a human is necessary to deal with these contingencies.  This is what many pilots see as their role on the flight deck, the monotonous monitoring of the “autopilot”.  I disagree that pilots are addicted to automation.  I believe they don’t know how to use and manage it properly and therefore, misuse or abuse it.

Today, anyone can buy an inexpensive digital camera, still or video, that will take pretty good pictures in most conditions.  For a little more money cameras can be purchased, when set to the automatic mode, that are virtually fool proof for taking pictures in any environment.  The term “point and shoot” is often used to refer to that style of camera. Highly sophisticated point and shoot cameras are used everyday by talented professional photographers.  Are they becoming addicted to the automation?

Can a photographer be addicted to his automation?  Is the same solution proposed for the pilot appropriate for the digital photographer?  Is it that they need to operate their devices in the manual mode more often?  That is the aviation industry’s suggested answer to automation addiction in the airplane.  Ansel Adams once said, “Knowing what I know now, any photographer worth his salt could make some beautiful things with pinhole cameras."  I don’t think he was suggesting that professional photographers should go back to using pinhole cameras. I believe he was saying that the outcome was not primarily a function of the tools used to produce it.  He was trying to point out that the camera itself was not responsible for how well it was used.

Reverting back to the pinhole camera doesn’t make the photographer better nor does it teach him how to use a more sophisticated instrument.  Neither does manually flying an airplane necessarily make the pilot competent or teach him how to better manage the automation.  What then, is the answer to automation abuse?  It is the same for both photographer and pilot? Yes, it is the opportunity and desire for the user to learn about why they use/misuse automation the way they do.

With either aviation or photography, it is not an addiction to, but rather the misuse of automation that is the problem.  If the desired outcome can be created more efficiently through the use of automation, what is the problem?  The abuse comes when the abilities of the automation are substituted for the talents of the user.   Abuse comes when the automation is used to excess or inappropriately.  This happens most often when the pilot or crew mentally disengages from the aircraft and abdicates its command to the automation.

Whether one chooses to call it, incorrectly I believe, addiction, or call it abuse, the treatment is the same.  Some form of rehabilitation must take place.  Misuse, however, is not an attribute of the thing being used.  Whether the object is a substance like cocaine, an activity like watching TV or the automation on an airliner, it cannot abuse itself.   It is the user that is responsible for the use or misuse of the object.  It is now known that effective rehab is not about the substance, but the abuser.   Treatment should focus on the individual, not the substance or activity.

What should the treatment for automation abuse be?  What would “automation rehab” look like?  It would begin by identifying the characteristics of automation abuse.  It would include an admission by individuals, operators, manufacturers and regulators that automation abuse exists and is a shared problem.  Investigating and identifying the factors that lead pilots or crews to abuse the automation would also be a good place to start.  This process would require a very introspective look by pilots, operators and manufacturers at the role of automation in aviation.  Are individual elements of automation designed to compliment, or to replace, or to enhance or to refine the skills of the human?  These are not easy questions.

I hope we can address the problem of  “automation addiction” in a more enlightened way than we initially handled substance abuse.  I am reminded of a story about a General that was touring the rehab ward of an Army medical facility in the 1960’s.  The General asked, “What are these men here for?”  The nurse responded, “They’re alcoholics, sir.”  The General looked at her with a matter of fact expression and said, “Well, tell’em to stop drinkin.”

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