Some recent news items and information doing the rounds has suddenly opened vistas which were, for some time, hovering in the shadowy background of ‘possibility’. The step into the realm of ‘reality’ now starts unfolding and multiplying, providing opportunities hitherto considered just science fiction. The two main issues were the launching of a ‘swarm’ of Perdix drones from a pod carried by a US Marine F-18 Hornet and the second was the first flight of a commercial airliner using artificial intelligence. In both cases, a pre-programmed system utilised its ‘own brain’ to further take decisions and actions to complete a given mission. We are acutely aware of the long period drones or UAVs have been in existence and their potential in a given sphere of operation. Pressure on the manned aeroplane is increasing! Is piloting going to become a redundant job, soon (eventually)?

I think we need to take a step back and look at the whole issue holistically and in the perspective of contemporary air operations, both military and civil. From the time the UAVs grew in stature and their versatility saw great exploitation with some amazing results, a definite thrust by UAV operators and (at the risk of being stabbed in the back) those who flunked and didn’t make pilot grade, to promote unmanned platforms and pronounce the end of the manned aeroplane. While the battle rages on, the fire has certainly ebbed because it is abundantly clear that the time has not come. Robotics has come a long way and has taken over many functions that were performed by humans and robots are able to execute them precisely and flawlessly. But these were more or less mechanical functions. Enter Artificial Intelligence (AI).

A subject under extensive study and application, AI can be basically defined “When a machine mimics (performs) ‘cognitive’ functions that humans associate with human minds.” The operative word in AI is definitely ‘cognitive’ and this is the diaphragm that is now under pressure, the envelope that is beckoning to be breached. A subject that seems to stretch to infinity, is moving forward, slowly but surely. Advances in computing power and data handling capability have bolstered progress. But there are many who fear the subject and its frightening possibilities. With robots taking over human’s jobs already causing distrust and anger, adding a ‘mind’ to the machine can have far reaching consequences and in fact make the human redundant in the task(s) given to the machine. Possibly the biggest fear is that of the machine breaking through the barrier of human control, becoming totally autonomous and in a gruesome (and maybe diabolical) reincarnation of a form of reverse osmosis, prey upon the very source that created it. The hunter becomes the hunted! Forty-five years ago Michael Crichton (of Jurassic Park fame) wrote a book called ‘The Terminal Man’ in which a computer scientist (specialising in mind control/artificial intelligence) undergoes a brain surgery and they implant a neuro-stimulator or a brain pace-maker, controlled by a master computer in the hospital. The scientist somehow tweaks his pacemaker, taking him out of the control of the master computer and transforms him into a psychopathic killer. A frightening tale. Another book by the same author called ‘Micro’ talks about micro-bots (a la Perdix) being used for various purposes, one of them being to guard facilities and kill intruders. Here also, tweaking a master control system has terrifying consequences.

Those opposing AI and its capability in the contemporary period or immediate future are suspicious of the quality and quantity of the ‘cognitive’ implication in the usage of AI and for good reason. They feel that a computer can never replicate the diverse thought processes that go through a human mind, especially in times of crisis. A striking example is when a flock of geese were ingested into the engines of an Airbus 320 with 155 passengers on board, which took off from La Guardia airport in New York. The consequent failure of both engines and Capt Sullenberger’s decision, after a quick, considered assessment, to land in the Hudson River is indicative of a “gut reaction” of an experienced pilot. There is no copybook action that would support the actions he took and the decision to ditch the airliner in the river, saving all lives, will live on in history. There are many instances among fighter pilots and helicopter pilots who, without redundancy of systems in their machines, have taken actions which are absolutely ‘out of the box’. Some have paid the price of an inaccurate assessment but many have succeeded and saved lives in dire and critical situations (at the risk of their own) and have been rewarded accordingly. Yours truly, the author, is one such living example.

An extract from the internet will probably put things in perspective: “Donald Cameron, Robert Pearsons, Robert Schornstheimer, David Crown, Al Hayes — each of these pilots, working with able and equally heroic crew-mates, saved the lives of passengers aboard seriously damaged airliners over the last 25 years by doing things that no computer could have come close to doing. In each case, it is a near certainty that by their quick thinking, powered by the uniquely human ability to combine high levels of training and proficiency with creativity at critical moments, saved lives. It is also a certainty that no technology available today (or likely in the next generation or two) will be capable of the kind of rapid fire, mentally elastic and ‘way’ out of the box thinking that each of these pilots demonstrated.”

While AI continues to progress and its redoubtable capability is unquestioned, the cognitive factor of the human “gut feeling” and “gut reaction” in a critical situation will remain debatable for some time. The recent crash of a driver-less car (operating on AI) in the highly disciplined traffic of western countries needs to be viewed in the context of the mindless and uncontrolled traffic of Delhi and Karachi. I don’t think piloting will become a redundant job in a hurry.

An alumnus of NDA and DSSC, Air Mshl Sumit Mukerji has served the IAF as a fighter pilot with distinction He has commanded three units, a MiG-29 Sqn, a MiG-25 SR Sqn and TACDE (considered the ‘Top Gun’ school of the IAF) and also served as the Air Attache in Washington DC. He retired in 2011 as the AOC-in-C of Southern Air Command.

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