Professor Jonathan Schooler and colleagues at NASA reveal challenges of watching computers fly the plane

October 01, 2015

When a commercial jet crashed on landing in San Francisco, it was ultimately determined that the plane had slowed to an unsafe speed during approach — and no one in the cockpit noticed in time to prevent the accident.

With pilots assigned to monitoring aircraft position, speed, altitude and an array of other automated functions as they appear on a computer screen during flight, how could such a major lapse occur? Easily, suggests a new study, which posits that the nature of the task itself is a recipe for failure.

The NASA-initiated scientific examination paired its own research psychologist, Steve Casner, with Jonathan Schooler, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at UC Santa Barbara. Their results indicate that humans may be inherently bad at watching computers work — and that they’re unlikely to get any better, no matter how careful the selection or training.

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