A new book, “The Second Machine Age” is causing quite a stir in economic and political circles. And I think the book does a lot to explain what we are seeing in aviation, too.
In “The Second Machine Age” MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson and MIT research scientist Andrew McAfee explain how our present era of the internet and almost limitless computerization and communication is different than the original machine age.
The authors postulate that the steam engine was the fundamental driver of the first machine age. The steam engine and other technology it enabled multiplied the efforts of men and animals that had performed the work before. The steam engine gave humans new power but humans remained fully in control. The original machines were helpless without skilled human operators to put the new mechanical muscle to work.
In this new machine age the machines largely control themselves. Instead of a highly skilled person operating a milling machine, or a lathe to create a new part or product, the milling machine and lathe get their instructions directly from the software that designed the part. There are still a few humans left to ask the computer to design a new product but the rest of the process is almost totally automated.
We have all observed how machines have replaced workers in almost all activities. And the trend is intensifying as electronic “machines” grow in capability faster than any technology ever developed before. The fallout for the labor force and the economy is immense, but the new machine age has also reached the cockpit.
The first flying machines, like the steam engine, empowered humans to leave the ground. But the human was very much in control of the aircraft and only great piloting skill could keep the early unstable and unreliable aircraft from coming to a bad end.
Now airplanes and engines can essentially fly themselves. All recently designed fighter jets, airline jets, and increasingly business jets, use fly-by-wire (FBW) technology. In a FBW airplane there is no mechanical link between the cockpit controls and the flight control surfaces. When the human pilot moves the flight controls in the cockpit an electrical signal is sent to an array of computers that decide how to position the actual flight control surfaces on the wings and tail.
The same technology is used to control engines with full-authority digital engine computers (FADEC). Moving the throttle sends an electrical signal to a computer that decides how to meter fuel to the engine and keeps it within operating limits no matter what the humans do.
It’s not a big step from a human in a cockpit moving a computer joy stick to a pilot on the ground moving a stick. Of course, the extensive use of drones by the military in far off wars for the past several years proves this technology is here and functioning.
Just as electronic control of a modern factory improves efficiency, electronic control of an airplane can do the same. With FBW computers doing the flying a more efficient but unstable airplane that humans would find hard to fly is possible and safe. Computers can control an engine with greater precision than any human so there are efficiency gains there. Three and even four people were required in the cockpit to fly large airplanes not that long ago but now the biggest airplanes ever built fly with a crew of only two.
The authors of “The Second Machine Age” describe how our society and economy are in this difficult transition zone with traditional jobs and work skills being replaced by electronics but a clear picture of how displaced workers will adapt has not yet emerged.
In aviation we are in an awkward situation with a high degree of automation even in personal airplanes but not full automation. The human must still make critical decisions and even vital control inputs at key moments while electronics handle the routine part of flying. History has shown that with training and experience humans become very skilled and reliable machine operators, but there is little evidence that we are reliable machine monitors. When things go well for long periods as they do with well designed machines we humans lose interest and simply can’t be alert enough to detect that one in a thousand, or worse yet, one in a million failures.
I have no idea where this new machine age will lead our society and economy and neither does anyone else. We can speculate, but nobody can be sure. I do expect automation to increase in aviation because the performance and cost savings gains are too alluring for operators to ignore.
At the personal aviation level we can choose to ignore the new age and keep ourselves firmly in charge of flying our airplanes. We will give up some performance and efficiency edge, and maybe even safety advances, but we can hold back the tide. I compare this to sailors who take on the challenge of moving over the water using only the wind and waves while even the most modest power boat leaves the sailor in his wake. Sailors sail for the challenge and satisfaction of mastering their machine and environment, and pilots flying their own airplanes can do the same.
But then even my sailing analogy goes to the bottom when I think of last fall’s America’s Cup races on San Francisco Bay. The boats had wings instead of flexible sails, there were two hulls and when the boats accelerated water wings—foils—lifted the hull clear of the water and speed quadrupled. Maybe flying our own airplanes with our own hands and skill is more like horseback riding. That can’t be automated by computers and the internet, can it?