The crashes of the Boeing 737 Max jet were predicted in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey. In the film, HAL the computer comes to believe that the humans on board are a danger to the mission, and begins killing them. Unlike HAL, The computer system on the Boeing 737 Max is not purposely killing people, but it does believe that human beings are dangerous to the success of the mission. Consequently, the automatic pilot on the Boeing 737 Max ignores the commands of the pilots and even overrides them.
The Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air crashes both took place when the computer system of the Boeing 737 Max forced the plane to dive into the ground while the pilots were desperately using all their strength to try to get the plane to climb. The computer ignored the climb commands and people died.
Boeing initially stated there was no problem with the 737 Max, and later came out and admitted that a “slight software fix” might be requited. This understatement reminds us of what HAL the computer said in 2001: A Space Odyssey after it killed all but 1 person on the spaceship.
“I know everything hasn’t been quite right with me, but I can assure you now, very confidently, that it’s going to be all right again. I feel much better now. I really do.”
Somehow we can picture the automatic pilot system of the Boeing 737 Max making the same statement.
Poor Pilot Training is another issue that Boeing management has blamed for the crash. They are partially right about that. We previously pointed out the lack of pilot training in our post 8 Reasons You Should Be Afraid To Fly. However, the biggest problem with the automatic pilot system on the Boeing 737 Max is that it is a hugely complex procedure just to turn the thing off.
Any factory manager knows that one of the keys to safety is to have a highly visible and easy -to-use Kill Switch located next to any machine that might malfunction. There is no Kill Switch to turn off a malfunctioning autopilot on the Boeing 737 Max. Pilots must execute a complex set of computer commands to turn the system off, even if the autopilot is flying the plane into the ground. If the pilots are not experts in these programming steps, there is no way for them to take back control of the aircraft.
The fact that you should never turn human control 100% over to computers has been a standard warning in science fiction books and films for decades. The Terminator, War Games, I Robot and countless others have focused on the unintended consequences of ceding control to machines. Yet Boeing, Airbus and other jet manufactures are working to steadily make pilots unnecessary. Some airlines have been pushing the FAA for rules to take the first step by eliminating rules requiring a copilot.
On the ground things are no better. Google is working on developing a driver-less tractor trailer. Imagine an 80,000 pound tractor trailer loaded with dangerous chemicals roaring down the highway with no driver. What could possibly go wrong?
When 2001: A Space Odyssey was released in 1968 speculation about malfunctioning computers causing human deaths was an interesting futuristic speculation. Now is is all too real.