The Future Impact of Digital Assistants on Aviation Safety Culture

Open Access
Conference Proceedings
Authors: Barry Kirwan

Abstract: In the coming decade, Artificial Intelligence-based Digital Assistants are likely to appear in operational aviation contexts, including the cockpit and air traffic control Ops room. Current scenarios for such AI support include advising flight crew during mid-flight emergencies, and executing routine air traffic duties in the Tower to reduce complexity and controller workload. The concept for Digital Assistants goes beyond today’s Machine Learning-based tools, which largely offer information to human operators. Instead, the notion is of an AI-based ‘colleague’ that can engage in dialogue with its human counterparts. This in turn leads to the notion of a Human-AI Team and raises a host of questions about how such a team can and should function to optimise system performance and safety. One question in particular concerns how working with a Digital Assistant, and even potentially relying on one in safety critical scenarios, will affect the team’s, and the parent organisation’s safety culture, since safety culture is seen as high in the industry, and valuable in assuring passenger and crew safety. In the European air traffic network, safety culture is measured regularly in different countries using a standardised 50-item scientifically validated questionnaire. This questionnaire has been applied to the Digital Assistant concept to see which facets of safety culture might be affected. The results of this analysis have identified six high-level concerns, but also six instances where the Digital Assistant could potentially reinforce or improve safety culture, providing new ‘safety affordances’. Although the current work’s focus is on aviation, the safety culture issues raised here may also pertain to other domains including health care, the energy sector, space and defence systems.

Keywords: AI, Digital Assistant, Safety Culture, Aviation

DOI: 10.54941/ahfe1002932

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