No, computers are not setting us up for disaster

Yesterday, the Guardian published a long essay by Tim Harford on the dangers of automation. The argument is not new (I first heard it on the econtalk episode with David Mindell), and the characteristic example is that of the Air France flight that crashed in the middle of the ocean after the autopilot handed control back to the human pilots who immediately proceeded to crash the plane. As I read it the argument runs as follows: (a) full automation is impossible, (b) partial automation erodes skills, therefore (c) we should be wary of over-automating.

On twitter, I responded with the snark that that medium encourages:

But I feel I should make a longer counter-argument.

1. Despite being a good visual (a plane crash is dramatic), the example of an airplane crash in 2009 is a terrible one. Commercial civil aviation is incredibly safe. Commercial aviation is so safe, I wouldn’t be surprised to read a contrarian Marginal Revolution post arguing it’s now too safe and we need more dangerous planes. I would be very careful in arguing that somehow whatever the aviation community does, is not working based on a single incident that happened 7 years ago. If this was happening every 7 weeks, then it would be a very worrying problem, but it doesn’t.

2. Everything I’ve heard and read about that Air France accident seems to agree that the pilots were deeply incompetent. I have also gotten the distinct impression that if the system had not handed back control to the humans, they would not have crashed the plane. It is simply asserted that we cannot have completely autonomous planes, but without evidence. Perhaps at the very least, it should be harder for the humans to override the automated control. Fully automated planes would also not be hijackable in a 9/11 way nor by their own pilots committing suicide (which given how safe planes are, may now be a significant fraction of airplane deaths!).

3. Even granting the premise of the article, that (a) full automation is impossible and (b) partial automation can lead to skill erosion, the conclusion that “the database and the algorithm, like the autopilot, should be there to support human decision-making” is a non sequitor. It assumes that the human is always a better decision maker, which is completely unproven. In fact, I rather feel that the conclusion is the opposite: the pilot should be there (if a pilot is needed, but let’s grant that) to support the autopilot. Now, we should ask: what’s the best way for pilots to support automated systems? If it is to intervene in times of rare crisis, then pilots should perhaps train like other professionals who are there for crises: a lot of simulations and war games for the cases that we hope never happen. Perhaps, we’ll get to a world where success is measured by having pilots spend their whole careers without ever flying a plane, much like a Secret Service agent trains for the worst, but hopes to never have to throw themselves in front of a bullet.

4. Throughout the essay, it is taken as a given that humans are better and computers are there to save on effort. There is another example, that of meteorologists who now trust the computer instead of being able to intuit when the computer has screwed up, which is what used to happen, but I don’t see an argument that their intuition is better than the computer. If you tell me that the veteran meteorologists can beat the modern systems, I’ll buy that, but I would also think that maybe it’s because the veteran meteorologists were working when the automated systems weren’t as good as the modern ones.

5. The essay as a whole needs to be more quantitative. Even if computers do cause different types of accident, we need to have at least an estimate of whether the number of deaths is larger or smaller than using other systems (humans). I understand that authors do not always choose their titles, but I wouldn’t have responded if title of the essay had been “It won’t be perfect: how automated systems will still have accidents”.

6. The skill erosion effect is interesting per se and there is some value in discussing it and being aware of it. However, I see no evidence that it completely erases the gains from automation (rather than being a small “tax” or clawback on the benefits of automation) and that the solution involves less automation rather than either more automation or a different kind of human training.

7. My horse riding skills are awful.

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2 thoughts on “No, computers are not setting us up for disaster

  1. Another argument against “experience vs computers”: I can’t remember where I heard it, but there are refresher courses for doctors, for example, to re-learn how to listen to pulmonary sounds. Studies showed experienced doctors actually got worse at this with time and that younger doctors were better, because they just came out of a period of “deliberate training”. Once you just have routine training, you are effectively not improving your skill set, and may, in fact, have degradation of previously gained skills.

    • I’ve always heard the fact that younger doctors do better in many ways (especially young doctors with a few years, but not more, of experience) interpreted as doctors becoming over-confident, but there may be indeed true skill degradation.

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