Archives For Spaceflight

The problem with people

The HAL effect, named after the eponymous anti-hero of Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s film 2001, is the tendency for designers to implicitly embed their cultural biases into automation. While such biases are undoubtedly a very uncertain guide it might also be worthwhile to look at the 2001 Odyssey mission from HAL’s perspective for a moment. Here we have the classic long duration space mission with a minimalist two man complement for the cruise phase. The crew and the ship are on their own. In fact they’re about as isolated as it’s possible to be as human beings, and help is a very, very long way away. Now from HAL’s perspectives humans are messy, fallible creatures prone to making basic errors in even the most routine of tasks. Not to mention that they annoyingly use emotion to inform even the most basic of decisions. Then there’s the added complication that they’re social creatures apt in even the most well matched of groups to act in ways that a dispassionate external observer could only consider as confusing and often dysfunctional. Finally they break, sometimes in ways that can actively endanger others and the mission itself.

So from a mission assurance perspective would it really be appropriate to rely on a two man crew in the vastness of space? The answer is clearly no, even the most well adjusted of cosmonauts can exhibit psychological problems when isolated in the vastness of space. While a two man crew may be attractive from a cost perspective it’s still vulnerable to a single point of human failure. Or to put it more brutally murder and suicide are much more likely to be successful in small crews. Such scenarios however dark they may be need to be guarded against if we intended to use a small crew. But how to do it? If we add more crew to the cruise phase complement then we also add all the logistics tail that goes along with it, and our mission may become unviable. Even if cost were not a consideration small groups isolated for long periods are prone to yet other forms of psychological dysfunctions (1). Humans it seems exhibit a set of common mode failures that are difficult to deal with, so what to do?

Well, one way to guard against common mode failures is to implement diverse redundancy in the form of a cognitive agent whose intelligence is based on vastly different principles to human affect driven processing. Of course to be effective we’re talking a high end AI, with a sufficient grasp of the theory of mind and the subtleties of human psychology and group dynamics to be able to make usefully accurate predictions of what the crew will do next (2). With that insight goes the requirement for autonomy in vetoing illogical and patently hazardous crew actions, e.g “I’m sorry Dave but I’m afraid I can’t  let you override the safety interlocks on the reactor fuel feed…“. From that perspective we might have some sympathy for HAL’s reaction to his other crew mates plotting his cybernetic demise.

Which may all seem a little far fetched after all an AI of that sophistication is another twenty to thirty years away, and long duration deep space missions are probably that far away as well. On the other hand there’s currently a quiet conversation going on in the aviation industry about the next step for automation in the cockpit, e.g. one pilot in the cockpit of large airliners. After all, so the argument goes, pilot’s are expensive beasts and with the degree of automated support available to day, surely we don’t need two men in the cockpit? Well, if we’re thinking purely about economics then sure one could make that argument, but on the other hand as the awful reality of the Germanwings tragedy sinks in we also need to understand that people are simply not perfect, and that sometimes (very rarely (3)) they can fail catastrophically. Given that we know that reducing crew levels down to two increases the risk of successful suicide by airliner one could ask what happens to the risk if we go to single pilot operations? I think we all know what the answer to that would be.

Where is a competent AI (HAL 9000) when you need one? 🙂

Notes

1. From polar exploration we know that small exploratory teams of three persons are socially unstable and should be avoided. Which then drives the team size to four.

2. As an aside, the inability of HAL to understand the basics of human motivation always struck me as a false note in Kubrick’s 2001 movie. An AI as smart as Hal apparently was, and yet lacking even an undergraduate understanding of human psychology, maybe not.

3. Remember that we are in the tail of the aviation safety program where we are trying to mitigate hazards whose likelihoods are very, very rare. However given that they aren’t mitigated they dominate the residual statistic.

Light this Candle

05/05/2011

What is it, that makes a man willing to sit up on top of an enormous Roman candle … and wait for someone to light the fuse? On the 5th of May 1961, Alan Shepard was launched from Cape Canaveral Florida, on a sub-orbital mission as the first US manned spaceflight.

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