watch the machines

I wrote the next two paragraphs in a blog post last year — we have met the enemy.

A long time ago — pre-pandemic and pre-9/11 — I was flying on a commercial passenger aircraft. The flight was over-booked and as I was wearing my Army uniform, I was offered to sit in the jump seat, just behind the pilots. Yes, these things happened in the ‘before times’.

It was a short flight but I had a chance to speak with the pilots. The captain told me that many civilian pilots had a military background but their training and experience resulted in some differences. He mentioned that if there was an observed incident on take-off, most of the civilian-trained pilots would make small adjustments to the throttle speed, aware that fuel costs money for the company. On the other hand, many of the military-trained pilots might react to an incident by slamming the throttles forward and getting out the situation and in the air as fast as possible. This of course costs more fuel, but from a military operational perspective would probably be the best default action.

Being so gentle with the throttle, in addition to using software to calculate weight & balance, could have severe repercussions.

On the morning of Jan. 26, as two Alaska Airlines flights from Seattle to Hawaii lifted off six minutes apart, the pilots each felt a slight bump and the flight attendants at the back of the cabin heard a scraping noise.

As the noses of both Boeing 737s lifted skyward on takeoff, their tails had scraped the runway.

Both planes circled back immediately and landed again at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Tail strikes happen occasionally in aviation, but two in quick succession was not normal. —Anchorage Daily News 2023-02-20

Luckily in this case it was only a tail strike that was the consequence of a software fault. Also, the pilots returned to land immediately and the Alaska Airlines Director of Operations grounded all aircraft until the problem was identified and solved.

We are going to continue to work in-step with machines and software. The US Air Force is already testing forms of machine learning to enhance fighter pilots skills in ‘dog fights’.

Launched in 2019, the program’s goal is to revamp aircraft combat by enabling F-16s to automatically dogfight. DARPA envisions machine-learning algorithms assisting pilots with flying and perform tactical maneuvers, with our humans focusing on battle commands, strategy, and firing weapons. This work involves developing new software and models. —The Register 2022-02-14

In complexity and chaos, passivity makes no sense. As we work with machine learning, whether it be to make important calculations, such as aircraft weight & balance, or using large language models like GPT-3, we have to be able to intervene, take charge, or even shut things down. These are uniquely human abilities, sometimes relying on what the Alaskan Air pilots refer to as TLAR — “an acronym when they do the pre-takeoff ‘sanity check’ … which means ‘That Looks About Right. If the automatically loaded data strikes either pilot as not right, they can make a manual request for takeoff data from the airline operations center.”

Human oversight of machines and software will be essential as these systems permeate our economy and society.


Machines are better at diligence, compliance, intelligence, & perseverance. Humans are better at empathy, curiosity, cooperation, & novel thinking. Human oversight of machines & software at work is necessary.

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