Transitory States

My Dad is an airline pilot and is currently studying to become the pilot of a different airplane. He flew the Lockheed L-1011 for years, but is now moving to the Airbus 310.

The 310, he notes, is a radical departure from the L-1011. “There’s two sets of all the controls – the computerized version and the manual version.” This makes for a pretty packed cockpit. Why two versions of everything? The 310 was a transitional aircraft, later Airbus aircraft are more fully computerized. In this version, because safety is paramount, manual controls are able to override anything that the computer does, perhaps because the thinking was that a human is always smarter than a computer, and a pilot will be able to correct things that the computer does that are uneconomical or unwise.

I remember my Dad coming home from trips and proudly describing how he saved the company thousands of dollars in fuel by doing a little simple trignometry and understanding how to use the wind and weather to his advantage. He’s been flying for almost 40 years, and performing his job in a clever way is an endless puzzle that never ceases to interest him.

So I asked him, do all these new computerized airplanes take some of the art out of your job? Can you still do those kinds of creative things, you and your machine? With your knowledge of geography and math and physics are you still able to shave minutes off flight times, or save a few thousand pounds of jet fuel?

He said that he can, but as autopilot systems become more and more dominant, it becomes less likely that you would do so. I thought this was interesting – much like the difference between creating a dish with your knowledge of ingredients and culinary skill, and simply following a provided recipe.

This aircraft interests me because it is a transitional step between analog and digital. In a way, further automation appears to make the pilot’s job easier, but it also reduces creativity and ingenuity. The concrete-spewing robot I decribed in “Just Add Water” must be commanded by a human to create an object. If, for example, the builder robot was programmed with a few pre-fab templates for structures, it could function with just a little direction from a human, just as a computerized airplane can fly with just a little direction from a qualified pilot. But the real art lies in understanding your machine – either by asking the robot to create new and innovative structures, or commanding the airplane to take a different course for a shorter, more pleasant, or more efficient flight.

I think that virtuosity in commanding a machine is an art, and enabling defaults present in the machine is a craft.

3 replies on “Transitory States”

It would be interesting to know whether the algorithms for the autopilots were based on the artistry of people like your father, or whether they were calculated from "scratch". I think as machines are increasingly able to "learn" rather than be programmed, we’ll see a lot of interestingly canned virtuosity. Oh, and everyone should look
at this:
http://dcoward.best.vwh.net/analog/libra.htm
just because it’s so darn cool.

Perhaps the Airbus negates a lot of your dad’s idiosyncratic shortcuts and fuel savers and such. However, I bet as he gets used to it, and despite the auto pilot superiority, he’ll be able to find new ways to influence his machine’s way of doing business. Perhaps one day this influece will be totally outmoded, and then we’ll just have to trust the machines. I know from watching movies, that this usually works out well.

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