Don’t Forget How to Fly The Plane – Managing Technology Transitions Safely

A video of this recent impressive cross-wind landing at Schiphol airport found its way to my Facebook feed. Great work from the pilot, but in the comments I saw a friend of a friend wondering if that was the auto-landing software or a pilot at work.

Well, I can assure you it was the pilot; the wind speed at the Schiphol airport averaged 40kts at the time the video was taken, with gusts to 55kts. However, B777’s maximum wind limit for auto-landing is 25kts.

However, for people to even consider that it could’ve been an autopilot got me thinking on one topic that is currently making our world temporarily more dangerous: we are over-reliant on technology that is not ready to take over from us.

With all the – completely valid, I might add – concerns about artificial intelligence, there is a more imminent risk that we are facing, and living with every single day without paying much attention to it. Ironically, the culprit is technological progress; it’s a problem because there’s enough of it, but not enough of it.

Forgetting how to fly the plane

As technology becomes good enough to do some work on our behalf, we tend to be a bit lazy and let it do that work on our behalf.

At first, it breaks down frequently enough so that we retain the skills necessary to take over when needed. But as it improves, we use those skills less and less, until we begin to forget how to take over in the first place – but at the same time, the technology is not yet so developed as to be superior to humans in handling all situations, nor is it infallible or often even particularly resilient. We enter a dangerous chasm of being over-reliant on immature technology.

That’s the dangerous zone we currently live in, and it’s happening everywhere. Like the pilots on Air France flight 447, we happily rely on the computers to run the show for us when it’s smooth sailing. But when something goes wrong, we, like the pilots, suddenly find that we lack the experience to deal with the situation.

Under pressure, we’ve forgotten how to fly the plane; the pilots’ very first responsibility.

The tragedy is that this is unlikely to have happened if we had never had the autopilot taking care of things for us in the first place.

Progress and resilience

And that is how things go, on scales small and large. Over the past centuries and increasingly rapidly over the past decades, humanity has piled on technology upon technology, and as they have grown to be good enough most of the time, we forget how to live without them and rely on them, somehow wrongly assuming they are better than us all of the time.

Whether or not that has disastrous effects like on AF 447 is often a matter of luck.

It’s a matter of luck we haven’t had another Carrington event or a well-coordinated terrorist attack that could disable a large electricity grid for weeks or months.

It’s a matter of luck we’ve avoided a globally devastating pandemic for so many years.

It’s a matter of luck we haven’t hit any climate change tipping points yet. Maybe.

This is good, because we’re not ready for any of them. The electricity grid is remarkably fragile, and we are totally dependent on it. We are systematically unable to deal with a major pandemic – just visit an ER on a good day. And on climate change, the lack of action in face of near-certain string of escalating disasters is deafening.

But luck only lasts so long.

Building Resilience

At some point, the technology surpasses our capacity to deal with issues. At some point, autopilots on airplanes become statistically far superior to humans in dealing with any situation thrown at them.

It is only when that happens – if even then – that we can forget to fly and let the machine take over; when we’re confident it will handle anything better than we ever could have.

We are not at that point yet.

And until we reach that point, we must maintain our capacity to fly – to fly that aircraft, to manage this planet, and to get ready for the turbulent times ahead we so clearly see are ahead of us.

We need to build resilience and backups.

We need to be ready to change and adapt.

We need to harness technology as it becomes available – and yes, drive it forward.

But we must not forget how to survive without it too soon.

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