Belmont Club

Germanwings Flight 9525

By now nearly everyone knows that co-pilot Andreas Lubitz intentionally flew Germanwings Flight 9525 into the Alps, killing nearly 150 innocent people. Lubitz turned the features intended to turn the flight deck into a fortress to create a space in which he could commit his crime undisturbed.  Authorities have now mounted a massive effort to find some motive or explanation for his actions.  They may succeed in unearthing a publicly acceptable motive or nothing, for the blackest of boxes is not the flight data recorder but the innermost citadel of consciousness.

Sometimes people do things that nobody else can understand.  Sometimes they even do things that are contrary to their rational interest.  The underlying premise of the A320 security  model was enlightened self-interest. Because the pilot shared the fate of the plane and all its passengers it was assumed that he would do nothing to harm the collective platform.

But once upon a time men knew that self-interest was not always a true shield.  What Milton called “the unconquerable will” often trumped it; demanding it should be obeyed, even when destruction is the result.  The name given to this unquenchable selfishness used to be evil. There is a strange moment in the New Testament when the disciples marvel at Christ’s ability to cast out demons and He responds by recalling a memory from an eon past. “It was a little before your time,” He told his followers, “but Satan and I have fought before.”

The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name.” And He said to them, “I was watching Satan fall from heaven like lightning.”

Christ’s reminiscence is one of the spookiest moments in the New Testment.  He knew evil of old.  We, on the other hand, have forgotten it, or deny it exists. Lufthansa thought it could make its planes safer through layers of screening and automated processes, but it failed to defend against the oldest enemy of all: the insistent will. To guard against this old enemy — which civilization remembered until recently — systems of checks and balances were built into critical systems to ensure that no single individual will could unilaterally control them. “Per US Air Force Instruction (AFI) 91-104, ‘The Two-Person Concept‘ is designed to prevent accidental or malicious launch of nuclear weapons by a single individual.”

In the case of Minuteman missile launch crews, both operators must agree that the launch order is valid by comparing the authorization code in the launch order against a Sealed Authenticator (a special sealed envelope which holds the code). These Sealed Authenticators are stored in a safe which has two separate locks. Each operator has the key to only one lock, so neither can open the safe alone. Also, each operator has one of two launch keys; once the order is verified, they must insert the keys and turn them simultaneously. A total of four keys are thus required to initiate a launch. For additional protection, the missile crew in another launch control center must do the same for the missiles to be launched. As a further precaution, the slots for the two launch keys are positioned far enough apart to make it impossible for one operator to reach both of them at once.

Programmers are familiar with the notion of voting algorithms. They are used in situations when it is too dangerous to rely on a single process to make a decision. It is yet another defense against the takeover of a system by a single will. “The consensus problem requires agreement among a number of processes for a single data value. Some of the processes may fail or be unreliable in other ways, so consensus protocols must be fault tolerant. The processes must somehow put forth their candidate values, communicate with one another, and agree on a single consensus value.”

And of course there is that old-fashioned document, drafted by white men that nobody reads any more: the Constitution. It is the most famous example of checks and balances. Tom Paine, who would have been familiar with Luke 10:18, described a proto-voting algorithm complete with references to angels:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public. We see it particularly displayed in all the subordinate distributions of power, where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other — that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights. These inventions of prudence cannot be less requisite in the distribution of the supreme powers of the State.

Today the idea of introducing “opposite and rival interests” into any process is viewed askance. The modern response to accidents is to centralize things even further. Anthony Wing Kosner writes in Forbes, “Artificial Intelligence Could Have Prevented The Germanwings Crash.” Could it? What could go wrong?

Perhaps artificial intelligence could have forestalled Flight 9525, in the same way reinforced cockpit doors could prevent another 9/11 hijacking, but only by substituting one risk for another. Speaking of 9/11, it should be recalled that the “safe elevators” in the World Trade Center doomed hundreds of people. “The World Trade Center had one of the world’s great elevator systems — 198 of the biggest, fastest elevators ever built. On the morning of Sept. 11, this technological marvel turned against the people who worked there. USA TODAY estimates that at least 200 people died inside World Trade Center elevators, the biggest elevator catastrophe in history.”

To comply with building codes, the World Trade Center since 1996 had been adding locks that made it impossible for passengers to force open the doors of stalled elevators. These locks, called “door restrictors,” had been added to about half of the 198 elevators in the twin towers. Nobody is known to have escaped from an elevator locked by a door restrictor. The World Trade Center followed a long-established approach to elevator rescues: Leave people inside stalled elevators until professionals can perform rescues. The elevators had three mechanisms, including the restrictors, designed to prevent people from accidentally falling down elevator shafts. An untold number were still trapped when the buildings collapsed. …

Door restrictors dropped a steel rod, like a deadbolt, into the mechanism that opened the elevator’s doors. The lock was activated when a properly working elevator left a landing. If the elevator stopped suddenly or lost power, the restrictor made it impossible to open the inside door more than 4 inches. The lock could be released — and the doors opened fully — only from the elevator car’s roof.

On all elevators, both those with and those without door restrictors, pressure from the motors kept doors closed until elevator cars were near a landing. Several strong men could overpower these motors. A loss of electrical power also could free the doors.

All of the outside or hallway doors had locks called “interlocks” that prevented opening the doors. This made it difficult for bystanders to help people stuck in elevators.

The elevators were modified to protect against lawsuits from people who forced elevator doors open and fell to their deaths.  We “improved” them under the impetus of lawyers who demanded perfection but forgot that efforts to eliminate risk — rather than manage it — often create a bigger risk in the process. Absolutely perfect systems, along with their political counterparts such as messiahs and enlightened despots, are probably bigger risks than the dangers they are designed to prevent.

Who was at the controls of Germanwings Flight 9525? Some old peasant in the French Alps might have remembered the words as it hurtled to earth: “I was watching Satan fall from heaven like lightning.”  The insistent will was at the flight controls, and we allowed him to lock himself in the cockpit.

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