Could tragedies like the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 in the French Alps be prevented with technology?

I was recently asked by a friend to comment on this situation, as a technologist and futurist. His question was whether some form of computerized override could be built to prevent a suicidal act such as the one committed on this flight.

My answer is that ultimately it comes down to how much trust we are willing to place in computerized decision-making systems, versus the amount of trust we place in humans.

Human pilots have a tremendous amount of context available to them as they look at their various flight instruments to assess their surroundings, weather conditions, other air traffic, etc. And beyond their instruments, they also use their eyes to visually scan the sky for hazards that may not be visible to the instruments for a variety of reasons.

In order to simulate that human capability, a computer would need to be equipped with a vision system capable of discriminating between an infinite number of unknown objects, seen from infinite different angles. It would then be required to possess a system able to evaluate the relative hazards presented by those objects, and be able to make corresponding adjustments to the plane’s trajectory to avoid those hazards.

Finally, we would require a system of this sort to have total trust in the readings presented by its instruments. A large array of sensors measure cabin pressure, outside pressure, altitude, direction, air speed, ground speed, and other variables that can influence the decision-making process. An unfortunate problem with such sensors is that they can fail, or be fooled by various conditions, such as ice build-up.

This was the case in the loss of Air France Flight 447, in which the pitot tubes iced up, making the system incapable of measuring air speed. In this case, even the human pilots did not react correctly, because they lacked proper contextual information.

In the Flight 9525 crash, the pilot in command of the aircraft apparently caused the plane to enter a steep dive from 38,000 feet to 100 feet. He did so by altering the programming of the autopilot. This would lead one to ask questions such as “is there ever a valid reason to set an autopilot to those parameters?” So perhaps some range-checking on human inputs to the system could be employed to prevent this sort of autopilot-based attack.

Assuming that the autopilot system rejected this input, would the pilot still be able to descend rapidly using manual control? If so, how would a computer know that the reason for the steep descent was not to avoid some other hazard? Or, how could the computer be sure the pilot wasn’t acting correctly based on his own observations, despite a failed sensor?

For these reasons, I suspect that a fully automated recovery system to prevent this kind of tragedy is unlikely, given current technology.

It’s worth noting that some well-respected luminaries within the technology community, such as Steve Wozniak, have recently come out against rapid development of artificial intelligence technology, stating that it is “scary and very bad for people.” On the topic, Bill Gates was quoted as saying “I don’t understand why some people are not concerned.” Their positions are interesting, as the further development of highly-capable artificial intelligence could also potentially serve humanity very well. I see their views as pessimistic, but not totally far-fetched.

It will be interesting to watch the development of these technologies in the coming decades. Regardless of whether you believe they are beneficial or dangerous, the implications for humanity are fascinating. I can’t wait to see where it all goes, personally.

Are You a Latent Racist?

The other day, I posted a link to this article ( and some brief criticism of the content. One of my colleagues challenged me about my it, so I thought I would add a bit of color to my position.

My reaction to race-baiting articles such at the one I posted about is strong, because of how irresponsible and cynical they are. The accusation of racism is one of the worst ones you can receive as a white male in American society today, akin to being called a liar or a coward in the old American West. There’s practically no defense to it, and the label carries a tremendous stigma in modern society. The charge is frequently used as an argument-ender for people who haven’t an honest argument to make. E.g. “People who disagree with ObamaCare are just racists.”

Whenever I read pieces by white people freaking out about all the injustices done by white people to black people and how awful white people are, I can’t help but laugh at the utter folly of being racist against your own race as a reaction to racism. It’s silly and disingenuous and deserves ridicule and derision.

My colleague wrote:

In referencing “states’ rights,” I *think* the author is alluding to — albeit in a clumsy, context-lacking style — the rhetorical quality of “states’ rights” in racially sensitive debates throughout American history, beginning with the Civil War/slavery, climaxing with the 1960s Civil Rights movement, hitting a sensitive note in Mississippi during Reagan’s 1980 speech, and surfacing more recently in discussion of healthcare, immigration, etc.

Does that make sense? I agree that the article is bit awkward and irresponsibly written, although I think the mere fact that “states’ rights” can carry so much baggage for some folks yet very little for you speaks to the author’s point: so many facets of American society and public discourse carry racially sensitive undertones and implications.

Given the writer’s atrocious and immature style, I think he may be crediting her with a bit too much capability for nuance.

I think that as a society the only way we can get beyond racism is by not giving such phrases as “states’ rights” and “work ethic” the power to evoke pre-civil rights-era racist ideas. I actually have no idea why “work ethic” would mean anything racist, at all. I understand the putative issue with “States’ Rights” but strongly disagree that people should keep thinking of it in that context. I.e. Not every white person who believes in States’ Rights believes in slavery, to be blunt.

From a principled point of view, slavery is an obvious infringement on individual human rights. But that’s a Libertarian idea, and all Libertarians want the United States to turn into Somalia, if you believe the popular hype from those who don’t happen to know what Libertarianism is actually about.

States’ rights, in particular, is actually a very important constitutional principle. If we want to delve into the subtleties and nuances of how language can be used, let’s examine the idea that many on the left would cede tremendous power and authority to the Federal government, stripping away powers that are meant to be “reserved to the States” in the name of collectivist Marxism, at the most extreme. This can be achieved by keeping principles like “States’ Rights” as topics to avoid, lest you be branded a racist for using such a coded racist term.

Unfortunately, we have allowed Congress to run roughshod over the Tenth Amendment for decades, abusing the “commerce clause” to regulate all kinds of things that ought to be left to the States, or even better, left unregulated.

Anyway, now I’m getting a bit off track here.

Her item #4 is particularly galling.

4. “God, Don’t White People Suck?”
Okay, I get what you’re trying to do here—having some fun at the expense of the oppressors while setting yourself up as one of the “cool” white people—but mainly what you end up doing is implying that black people don’t like informative radio or TED talks. Stuff White People Like: having the best brains! Isn’t it great that we can make fun of ourselves while still reminding you that we’re better than you?


(The red text for emphasis is mine.)

Apparently, by poking a bit of fun at your own group with sites like you’re actually being racist? That she assumes a venal motive (acting superior to black people) really reflects more on her own latent(?) prejudices than on those of the people who made that site.

I guess my main objection is that by railing against white people as being a bunch of awful, latent racists, she’s really just exposing herself as one. I think if she sees racists hiding behind every “coded phrase” she just might be a racist herself.

Buy New Jersey Pinelands Native Plants

The Pinelands Preservation Alliance is having their native plant sale this month, on April 28. This is the perfect place to get appropriate native plants to begin my quest to transform my  yard into a meadow.

I am hoping that by populating my yard with native species, it will be more drought-resistant and provide a better habitat for the various birds that frequent the area.

Turn Your Yard Into a Meadow

I was watching Penn & Teller’s “Bullshit” last night and saw their episode on Lawns. It resonated with me, because my lawn sucks.

I’m frankly fed up with trying to grow grass. I am not committed enough to the thing to spend the time or money required to have the “nice lawn” that so many people idealize. I have seeded, fertilized and watered, but the stuff just won’t grow the way it’s supposed to. I probably don’t water it enough, but then I consider watering a lawn to be a uniquely wasteful exercise in futility.

In the region where I live, the weather is too inconsistent to get away with keeping a lush carpet of green outside, without being willing to pour at least 3000 gallons of water on it each week. The only thing I’m willing to water is my vegetable garden and flower beds, as they provide me with food and beauty, respectively. It’s not that 12,000 gallons of water a month is particularly costly; I can more than afford it. It’s that it’s just a waste of clean water and poured on non-native grass species it doesn’t represent a good value.

This is where the title of the post comes in. I’ve decided to turn the majority of my yard into a meadow. It will consist of native plants that grow well in this climate without significant maintenance. There will be wildflowers, grasses and other things. I haven’t decided what specifically to plant yet, but I will be visiting the Pinelands Preservation Alliance to get advice and maybe even some seeds.