Rise of the Machines: Fear or Hope?

Whether it’s driving, airplanes, or customer service, the future looks increasingly like it’s going to be defined by automation. Depending on who you ask, that’s a prospect that brings mixed feelings. Some are terrified at the thought that machines or AI could perform work and tasks better than human beings, while others are confident that the future of automation will make us safer than ever before.
One person that firmly falls into the latter camp is Elon Musk, the charismatic and future-focused founder of Tesla and SpaceX. While Musk certainly has a vested interest in the general public and regulators accepting automation—indeed, the fate of his company depends on it—he also genuinely seems to believe in its power. As The Telegraph reported recently: “He said it is ‘disturbing’ that the media covers the vast majority of self-driving car road accidents, while neglecting to discuss the ‘1.2 million people that die every year in manual crashes. If, in writing some article that’s negative, you effectively dissuade people from using an autonomous vehicle, you’re killing people,’ he said.”
In fact, Musk seems to believe that in 100 years we will find it crazy that we used to allow humans to drive cars: “It’ll be an order of magnitude safer than a person. In fact, in the distant future, I think […] people may outlaw driving cars, because it’s too dangerous. You can’t have a person driving a two-ton death machine.”
While Musk’s extreme and optimistic outlook has its place, it doesn’t take away from the fact that there are proven risks when it comes to automation and safety. Various studies have shown that reliance on technology can erode basic cognitive skills, which poses a threat when humans do have to intervene.
One of the most tragic examples of this is the fate of Air France 447 (AF447) in 2009. The plane’s crash was a shocking anomaly in commercial aviation, a form of travel understood to be incredibly safe. However, it wasn’t the automation that failed, it was a moment of pilot intervention—spurred by a slew of unusual events—that was faulty. This, worryingly, is a trend we often see when it comes to human intervention to automated processes.
A report on Harvard Business Review about the crash said: “AF447 precipitated the aviation industry’s growing concern about such “loss of control” incidents, and whether they’re linked to greater automation in the cockpit. As technology has become more sophisticated, it has taken over more and more functions previously performed by pilots, bringing huge improvements in aviation safety. In 2016 the accident rate for major jets was just one major accident for every 2.56 million flights. But while overall air safety is improving, loss of control incidents are not. In fact, they are the most prevalent cause of fatalities in commercial aviation today, accounting for 43% of fatalities in 37 separate incidents between 2010 and 2014.”
While this data applies to aviation, the reality of “loss of control” incidents being linked to greater automation has implications for a number of industries. For example, there is bound to be a transitional period where the autonomous cars that Musk so wants to see take over the road will have to be operated with the help of humans. When that happens, this data suggests that the less that humans drive, the more likely it is that they won’t respond well when an unexpected, unusual event that requires their intervention arises.
As HBR went on to say: If [automation] results in less active monitoring and hands-on engagement, pilots’ situational awareness and capacity to improvise when faced with unexpected, unfamiliar events may decrease. This erosion may lie hidden until human intervention is required, for example when technology malfunctions or encounters conditions it doesn’t recognize and can’t process.”
While Musk may be right that driverless cars are the future of safer streets, much more data is needed to tell us how to mitigate this high-risk transitional period, of which Air France’s tragic plane crash serves as a cautionary tale.