Llewellyn King: Don't let autonomous-transport developers rush to market

A    WestJet    Boeing 737 MAX 8 on final approach. The model is now grounded.

A WestJet Boeing 737 MAX 8 on final approach. The model is now grounded.

A shadow has fallen across the future of autonomous transportation, one of the key aspects of the city of the future and of the widespread use of artificial intelligence. It comes from Boeing in the form of the computer problem that has grounded the world’s fleet of 737 Max 8 aircraft.

No definitive cause of the crashes of Lion Air Flight 610, in the Java Sea, which killed 189 people, and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, en route from Nairobi to Addis Ababa, which killed 157 people, has been established yet. But the everything points to the computerized stall-avoidance system.

In terms of computing in aircraft, this is no more than an embarrassment. In terms of loss of life, it is ghastly. In terms of the public confidence in the growing role of computing in everything, it is grave.

These crashes have stimulated public fear, and public fear hangs around. So does institutional fear -- even when the problem has been identified and remediated.

Consider these events, which have left a long-lasting residue of fear:

Thalidomide was a drug developed in Germany and first marketed there to pregnant women as an anti-depressant.. Use spread around the globe and the results were devastating: More than 10,000 babies were born without one or two major limbs, like arms and legs.

I am told, although it is never mentioned, thalidomide haunts the drug industry. It has affected both the development of new drugs and the regulation of drugs to this day. The long delays and exhausting trials new drugs go through are partly due to something that happened in the late 1950s.

The Three Mile Island nuclear-power plant accident, in Pennsylvania in 1979, has affected nuclear design and regulation of nuclear plants ever since, although no life was lost. There was a partial meltdown of the core and the result fed the anti-nuclear movement which, ironically, pushed utilities back to coal -- now under attack because of its environmental impact.

The Max 8 problem, in terms of computing in aircraft, is no more than a glitch, possibly the result of a rush to market. But the loss of life is terrible and the loss of confidence immeasurable.

A whole array of high-tech companies is hoping to bring autonomous transportation to the streets within a decade or not much longer. These include Uber, Lyft and Google. Tesla would like to see autonomous electric trucks handling intercity deliveries.

This push to the driverless has huge energy and resources behind it. It is a part of what has come to be known as the smart city revolution. It also is part of what has been described as the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Early autonomous cars have depended on sensors to guide them. The car in front slows and the car behind picks this up from its sensors. When autonomous vehicles are fully developed, these cars and all the others on the road will be in constant communication with each other. Car A will tell Car B, “I am breaking” and so on down through a line of traffic. It is coming.

The message from Boeing’s catastrophe is: Get it right or you will scare the public off, as happened with Three Mile Island. Some willing propagandists scared the public off nuclear — our best way of making a lot of electricity without carbon.

The technology in aircraft is very sophisticated. Almost all passenger airliners have been able to land themselves once they intercept a radio signal, called the glide slope, at an advanced airport. They are packed full of computers operating all sorts of wondrous systems.

If all the computers on the fatal Max 8s had been talking to each other, as traffic will have to in the coming era of autonomous vehicles, they might well have shut down the stall avoidance system that was mis-sensing an imminent stall.

The neo-Luddites will try to exploit the Boeing catastrophe into slowing smart city development. The challenge for autonomous technology is to get it right. Not rush to market.

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of White House Chronicle, on PBS. His email is and he’s based in Rhode Island and Washington, D.C.

Boeing and MIT announce Kendall Square project

At Kendall Square, in Cambridge.

At Kendall Square, in Cambridge.

From the New England Council (

"Boeing Co. and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently announced plans to open a new Boeing Aerospace & Autonomy Center in Cambridge’s Kendall Square neighborhood, making Boeing the first tenant of MIT’s long-planned Kendall Square Initiative.  Under the new agreement, Boeing Co. will occupy about one-third of the 343,000-square-foot office building which will house the company’s recenlty-purchased subsidiary, Aurora Flight Sciences, a Virginia-based company that specializes in the design and construction of advanced unmanned systems and aerospace vehicles. The new center will focus on designing, building, and flying autonomous aircraft and developing enabling technologies.

The agreement builds on a century-long research relationship that Boeing and MIT established with the overarching goal of advancing aerospace innovation. Earlier this year, the company announced that it will serve as lead donor for a new $18 million wind tunnel on campus.

MIT Provost Martin Schmidt said, “It’s fitting that Boeing will join the Kendall/MIT innovation family. Our research interests have been intertwined for over 100 years, and we’ve worked together to advance world-changing aerospace technologies and systems. MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics is the oldest program of its kind in the United States, and excels at its mission of developing new air transportation concepts, autonomous systems, and small satellites through an intensive focus on cutting-edge education and research. Boeing’s presence will create an unprecedented opportunity for new synergies in this industry.”


David Warsh: Of plane crashes and hyper-computerization


The course in introductory computer science at Harvard College this year surpassed elementary economics in popularity. It has 818 enrollments, or nearly 12 percent of the undergraduate population, compared to 711 students in Economics 10. For most of the last  30 years, the economics course has been the catalog’s top offering.
The swing probably reflects the expert showmanship of computer scientist David Malan more than any underlying change in the relative importance of the fields. (See this eye-opening account of Malan’s entrepreneurial flair by Cordelia Mendez, and/or read a defense of it by Malan’s colleague Harry Lewis.) But the surge of interest in computers surely also reflects desire on the part of undergraduates to understand better whatever happens next, especially in the sorts of fields they think they might like to enter.
It is a conviction among many computer scientists that when (not if) the generalizable knowledge representation problem is solved, a new wave of expert systems will quickly emerge, enabling robot software to displace human  doctors, lawyers, bankers, teachers, pilots, and, of course, taxi drivers in performing a wide range of their customary tasks.
An especially good meditation on this uncertain future has just appeared.  The Glass Cage: Automation and Us (Norton), by Nicholas Carr, stipulates that software has cut costs, decreased workloads and enhanced safety.  But, warns Carr, it has also eroded skills, dulled perceptions, slowed reactions and produced a “glass cage” of complacency about automation – a cage that he aims to break.
A case in point. Carr’s book includes a wonderful account of the first appearance, almost exactly a hundred years ago, of a technology whose evolution since is of great interest to him.  The scene was the Paris Air Show, June 18, 1914 – an event designed then, as now, to showcase the latest developments in aviation.
Piloting a Curtis bi-plane that day was Lawrence Sperry, son of inventor Elmer Sperry.  Flying with him was his mechanic, Emil Cachin. On the first low pass before the grandstand. Sperry held his hands aloft.  Remarkable! The plane was flying itself.
On the second pass, Cachin had climbed out to stand alone on one wing. Again, no hands, despite the change in wind resistance. On the third pass, Sperry, too, had climbed out of the cockpit to stand on the other wing. Carr writes, “The crowd and the judges were dumbfounded.”
Beneath the vacant pilot’s seat was Elmer Sperry’s “gyroscopic stabilizer apparatus,” a pair of gyroscopes, installed horizontally and vertically and powered by the wind, the controllers of history’s first autopilot.  “Sperry won the grand prize – fifty thousand francs – and the next day his face beamed from the front pages of newspapers across Europe.”
Fast-forward to Air France Flight 447, Rio de Janeiro to Paris, June 1, 2009. You remember the story. The Airbus A330 encountered a storm in mid-Atlantic in the middle of the night.  The Pitot tubes, its air-speed sensors, iced up, the autopilot disengaged, and the co-pilot who took control, thinking he was going too slow, pulled back on the yoke and put the plane into a stall. Instead of reversing himself to pick up speed (or simply letting go to permit the plane to fly itself), he continued to try to climb. The pilot sought to take control but it was too late. The plane fell 30,000 feet into the ocean.
Carr rehearses the history of the design competition between Airbus and Boeing over the  30 years since computer-controlled “fly by wire” techniques (as opposed to traditional cables, pulleys and gears) were introduced. Airbus pursued a technology-centered approach to render its planes “pilot-proof,” designing software system that in some cases overruled commonly made pilot errors. Boeing, in contrast, embraced computer control of airplane surfaces, but kept the aviator at the center of its systems. Significantly, it retained bulky old-fashioned front-mounted yokes in contrast to the smaller side-mounted game-controller-like devices with which Airbus pilots steered their planes.  Carr writes:
Airbus makes magnificent planes.  Some commercial pilots prefer them to Being’s jets, and the safety records of the two manufacturers are pretty much identical. But recent incidents reveal the shortcomings of Airbus’s technology-centered approach.
Some aviation experts believe that the design of the Airbus cockpit played a part in the Air France disaster.  The voice-recorder transcript revealed that the whole time the [co]pilot controlling the plane, Pierre-Cédric Bonin, was pulling back on his sidestick, his co-pilot [captain] David Robert, was oblivious to Bonin’s fateful mistake. In a Boeing cockpit, each pilot has a clear view of the other pilot’s yoke, and how it’s being handled.  If that weren’t enough, the two yokes operate as a single unit.  If one pilot pulls back on his yoke, the other pilot’s goes back too.  Through both visual and haptic [tactile] cues, the pilots stay in synch.
Airbus sidesticks, in contrast, are not in clear view, they work with much subtler motions,, and they operate independently.  It’s easy for a pilot to miss what his colleague is doing, particularly in emergencies when stress rises and focus narrows.
Design differences like these in particular products will be resolved over time, but the differences in philosophy that the story reveals are ubiquitous, and often important on a systemic scale. Carr concludes:
As computer systems and software applications come to play an ever larger role in shaping our lives and the world, we have an obligation to be more, not less involved in decisions about their design and use – before technological momentum forecloses the options. We should be careful about what we make.
Thus the appeal of computer science, especially to those just starting out on their careers. Economics, too, has much to say about these matters, under the heading, at least at first, of recent work on the diffusion of general-purpose technologies (steam, chemistry, electricity, computers, biotechnology). After that come the deeper social mysteries of the nature of work itself.  Expect those enrollments to remain high. There will be plenty of opportunity teaching and writing about robotology.

David Warsh, a longtime financial journalist and an economic historian, is principal of