Monday, March 07, 2011

Back to Normal

My last post for James Fallows is up on his blog now. Starting today, I hope to return to a more sedate pace, suitable for a retired guy. I’d forgotten what it was like to go through life with too many thoughts running around in my head and a deadline. With AVweb, it was just once a month. My wife has been looking at me and just shaking her head. Well, she says things but when I’m lost in thought I do not hear.

I thought it might prove useful to list the entries I put up in case I (or anyone else) wants to find them at a later date. They are, in order:

Inside the Busy, Stressful World of Air Traffic Control

Seeing Through an Air Traffic Controller's Eyes

The Case for Regulating Airport Runways

Why We Need Constant Air Traffic Vigilance

Can the FAA Get Rid of Air Traffic Controllers?

It is my fervent hope that in some way, somehow, they shall do some good.

I have to, again, thank James Fallows for the grand opportunity of borrowing his audience. His audience is not only vast, it is influential. I’ll never understand why he was willing to take such a risk on me. I hope that he is breathing a little easier today.

I’ll leave you with one thought I never worked into his site. The week before, IBM’s “Watson” was the big story. I’m sure the guys at the FAA and MITRE that dream of replacing air traffic controllers with computers were watching. I’d heard Ken Jennings being interviewed about it all. The show had already been taped but he was sworn to secrecy about the outcome. He mentioned that Watson has several advantages over humans. Near the top of the list was the fact that Watson didn’t get nervous. Watson didn’t get emotional. It didn’t get rattled.

I could see where some people might think that was an advantage. Controllers and pilots do get scared. When -- suddenly -- there’s an emergency and someone’s life hangs in the balance, it can be hard to control the fear. It can be hard to keep that fear out of your voice and provide a pilot with reassurance. A controller knows that they might say something wrong. They might make the wrong decision. And they know the enormity of it.

The fact that Watson is missing those human frailties is a double-edged sword. It’s a computer. “Caring” is just another word in it’s electronic vocabulary -- just like “dying”. It can make the decision to turn an airplane into a mountain with all the emotionless efficiency with which it “landed” in Toronto instead of Chicago .

I’m going to take the fact that it bombed on an aviation question as a sign.

Don Brown
March 7, 2011

1 comment:

Doug Brown said...

I started watching a program about IBM's Watson while flipping through the channels on the TV. I was awestruck by how quickly and accurately the computer was able to process Alex Trebek's questions. Later in the program I learned that Watson was in essence, e-mailed the questions because it can't understand speech. I don't think controllers are in danger of being replaced anytime soon.