Technology can improve safety. It can deliver just-in-time data for first responders, it can remotely monitor assets in dangerous places so humans don’t have to, and one day, AV (autonomous vehicle) technology will drive vehicles, mitigating dangers associated with human driver error. However, technology can also detract from safety. Too much technology in front of someone operating a machine of any type can distract from the task at hand—even if it’s very purpose is to help.

This is true on the roads. Technology built into modern vehicles can help drivers operate their vehicles and devices more safely, but the technology drivers bring into their vehicles can add too much to a driver’s mental load, slowing his reaction times, and creating more risk. Distracted driving has become a hot topic because people are getting hurt. Each day in the U.S., according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), more than 1,000 people are injured in road vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver.

Does tech also distract in the skies? CSEM, a nonprofit Swiss research and technology organization, says autopilot technology has increased the number of displays and instruments in plane cockpits in an effort to increase safety by reducing pilots’ workload. However, too much information isn’t helpful in times of stress, creating a sort of “instruments paradox”, CSEM says. Removing technology isn’t the answer, but evolving it may be.

The organization has announced a consortium that will enable new types of HMI (human–machine interface) solutions across cockpit avionics. CSEM and its partners will work together on the European-funded PEGGASUS project to leverage AI (artificial intelligence) and computer vision technologies to integrate remote eye-gaze tracking and gesture recognition in a single framework.

Goals of the project include giving pilots more control by moving toward multimodal cockpit interactivity and developing next-generation cockpits that rely on enhanced human-machine interaction. CSEM wants to better understand pilot limitations, including confusion, drowsiness, and mental workload, and how these limitations may impact decisionmaking in the heat of the moment. The HMI solutions in development could enable more natural interactions between pilots and their aircrafts, helping pilots make informed decisions in any situation.

To reach the project’s goals, the PEGGASUS team will need to address aviation-specific challenges. For instance, vision systems and machine learning algorithms must account for two pilots in the cockpit, not just one. It must also be able to withstand environmental factors like vibration. Thorough testing will be necessary to ensure the HMI solutions really are safer and not simply more distracting or confusing.

Technology has impacted all modes of transportation, and by the time the 21st century comes to a close, driving a car and flying a plane will look different than it does today. Already, drivers and pilots have a lot of information at their fingertips. What industries are grappling with now is how much is too much? At what point does the tech meant to keep operators safe start to become less safe? There’s no easy answer to this question, but innovations in AI and machine learning may hold the key to helping humans and machines interact in the safest ways possible.

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