How do you feel about getting on a plane with no pilot?

Those of us who follow tech news are aware that completely AI-driven cars are in our future. We should also be ready for completely AI-piloted aircraft. Are you?

An interesting survey by UBS just came out, and its findings are all over the media. Some 8,000 air passengers were surveyed; here are the results which really got my attention:

  • 54% of respondents felt unlikely to take a flight that didn’t have a human pilot

  • 17% of respondents were confident about taking a flight without a human pilot

  • Completely AI-piloted aircraft could save the airline industry $35bn per year, $31bn of which would come from reducing the cost of highly skilled employees

But autopilot is nothing new – and we’re happy enough with that. It’s a feature that has existed in aircraft in some form or another since June 1914. That’s only a little over a decade after the Wright Brothers flew their first experimental aircraft in December 1903. In the century or so since, autopilot in aircraft has become increasingly functional and sophisticated.

Are people correct in their reluctance to trust completely computer operated aircraft?

Research and development on driverless cars has gone on for many years now. America’s National Highway Traffic Safety Adminstration estimates that it takes a human driver an average of 100m miles, or 160m kilometres of driving to kill someone. By May 2016, Tesla’s Autopilot feature, which is only semi-autonomous, has been tested over that same distance.

Meanwhile, Google’s completely autonomous cars had logged 1.6m (2.5m kilometres) as of April 2016 – so just imagine what the collective odometer on all of Tesla and Google’s vehicle testing looks like by now. There have been couple of collisions with Google’s human driverless cars in April 2016, but they didn’t even cause human injury, let alone death.

Now let’s get back to aircraft. Commercial aircraft can already take off, cruise, and land with a computer doing all of the thinking. That makes it much safer for passenger jets in situations such as landing in foggy conditions.

Air France flight 447 became a disaster when the Airbus A330 aircraft’s autopilot failed. But it wasn’t an autpilot failure that crashed the plane and killed all 216 passengers and 12 personnel.: it was the inability of the three human pilots to control the plane after the autopilot failed. All of those deaths were ultimately caused by human error.

Concerning the UBS survey on how people feel about completely autonomous aircraft, human beings are notoriously bad at estimating real risk and danger. An article in Wired considers research done by psychologists in that area.

A lot of the current research into the psychology of risk are examples of these newer parts of the brain getting things wrong.

And it’s not just risks. People are not computers. We don’t evaluate security trade-offs mathematically, by examining the relative probabilities of different events. Instead, we have shortcuts, rules of thumb, stereotypes and biases – generally known as ‘heuristics’. These heuristics affect how we think about risks, how we evaluate the probability of future events, how we consider costs, and how we make trade-offs.

That’s borne out by the figures for traffic injuries in the US after the terrorist attacks of September 2001, as researchers Wolfgang Gaissmaier and Gerd Gigerenzer from the Harding Center for Risk Literacy at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin reported 11 years later. In their conclusions, they stated:

The fear of terror attacks may have compelled Americans to drive instead of fly. They were thus exposed to the heightened risk of injury and death posed by driving.

So we’re not very good at assessing risk, and apparently even prepared to do things that are more risky in response to a perceived danger.

But completely AI-piloted aircraft could well be part of our future, regardless of how we feel about it. Airbus has already successfully completed trials of its experimental, completely autonomous SAGITTA aircraft.

The UBS survey of how human beings feel about completely computer piloted aircraft does illustrate that most are wary. But there’s a silver lining. Younger and more highly educated respondents were more likely to want to fly with “pilotless” planes, so it’s possible that the wider public will come to accept that, too, as time goes on.

We’ll probably have some time to psychologically adjust, however. According to UBS, the implementation of “pilotless” aircraft will probably be gradual.

In commercial flights, if the move from two to zero pilots may be too abrupt over the next 10 to 20 years, we could see first a move to having just one pilot in the cockpit and one remotely located on the ground, particularly on flights below six to seven hours. Indeed, today’s drones are controlled by remotely based operators.

We’re already accepting autonomous cars – one day the potentially unnerving but safer pilotless aircraft could well be taking us on our next trip.