Why We Need a More Tentative Approach to Innovation

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Automated technology allows industries to operate economically, but it also demands a great amount of vigilance and maintenance

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Aviation and agriculture seem as distant as two professions can be. But they have something in common: technology so impressive that it can be hazardous if skills aren't maintained. I was moderately optimistic about the flying outlook two years ago. That might have been premature. ABC News reports on the aviation latest safety hazard, "automation addiction," the decline of emergency skills through overreliance on autopilot.

Rory Kay, an airline captain and co-chairman of a Federal Aviation Administration committee on pilot training, told the Associated Press that pilots are now experiencing "automation addiction."

"We're seeing a new breed of accident with these state-of-the art planes," Kay said. "We're forgetting how to fly."

The technology behind the auto-pilot on commercial aircrafts only requires pilots to do approximately three minutes of flying -- during take-off and landing - which has contributed heavily to the number of "loss of control" accidents, such as the crashing of Air France flight 447, which nosedived 38,000 feet into the Atlantic in June of 2009.

As flight 447 soared through powerful storms over the Atlantic, the plane's autopilot suddenly disengaged and a stall warning activated. The senior co-pilot then said: "What's happening? I don't know, I don't know what's happening."

The pilots then pulled the plane's nose up, when the correct procedure during a stall is the exact opposite: nose down. The co-pilot was yelling "climb, climb, climb!" but was interrupted by the captain, who said: "No, no, no -- don't climb."

The plane slammed into the ocean, killing all 228 on board. A report by France's Bureau of Investigations and Analysis indicated that there were no mechanical problems with the plane, which would not have crashed had the pilot responded correctly.

There's another kind of dependency on the farm, according to a Wall Street Journal article republished here. A Iowa State university study has revealed that some insects are developing resistance to the natural insecticide produced by Monsanto's bioengineered corn:

The discovery comes amid a debate about whether the genetically modified crops that now saturate the Farm Belt are changing how some farmers operate in undesirable ways.

These insect-proof and herbicide-resistant crops make farming so much easier that many growers rely heavily on the technology, violating a basic tenet of pest management, which warns that using one method year after year gives more opportunity for pests to adapt.

Monsanto is already at the center of this issue because of its success since the 1990s marketing seeds that grow into crops that can survive exposure to its Roundup herbicide, a glyphosate-based chemical known for its ability to kill almost anything green.

These seeds made it so convenient for farmers to spray Roundup that many farmers stopped using other weedkillers. As a result, say many scientists, superweeds immune to Roundup have spread to millions of acres in more than 20 states in the South and Midwest.

Aviation and agriculture have something else in common. Risks aren't borne only by a single airline or farm but by passengers and other aircraft in one case, and neighboring farms on the other. So the public demands regulation. But there's often a plausible argument that new and more sophisticated technology is making the old rules obsolete. That doesn't mean stringent new regulations are a panacea; the "lifeboats for all" movement after the sinking of the Titanic contributed to another tragedy, the Eastland disaster.

I'm skeptical about the strong form of the precautionary principle, if it demands so much proof that we might be needlessly locked into older forms of safety and environmental hazards. But we do need a more tentative approach to innovation and speedier recognition adverse results. The best kept secret of automatic technology is that it demands a surprising amount of vigilance and maintenance.

Image: Jschladen/Flickr.


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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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