Home > Articles

This chapter is from the book

Can Technology Change the Odds?

An important question is whether we can use technology to automatically prevent accidents in complex systems, and if so, are these measures a net positive force? Technology is being used for operations in more businesses every day. Common examples include automation of production processes, automation of customer service functions, call center support systems to help make operators "smarter" and more effective salespeople, and information systems that monitor key variables constantly and warn managers when limits are exceeded.

We want to believe that if we program operations and response, we can ensure standard quality and minimize or prevent mistakes. The reality is that business, broadly speaking, is not as far along in this regard as those businesses that must use technology to operate at all.

For example, Airbus Industries pioneered "fly-by-wire" and first introduced it in commercial passenger aircraft in the A320. Historically, the pilot's yoke (or stick, depending on the aircraft) was physically connected, via cables, to the ailerons and elevator, the primary control surfaces for roll and pitch of the aircraft. As airplanes grew larger and heavier, hydraulic actuator systems (something like power steering in automobiles) were connected to the cables to make it easier for the pilot to control the airplane. Even with a hydraulic system, pilots physically feel a direct relationship between the movement of their hands and the response of the aircraft.

Fly-by-wire removes the physical connection, with a joystick generating an electronic signal that is sent to actuators that drive the movement of the control surfaces. Fly-by-wire makes controlling a large passenger aircraft akin to playing a video game, literally using a joystick to control the aircraft attitude and direction. For pilots, this was a major technological leap that was not necessarily welcome since the "feel" of the aircraft is artificially induced in the stick by electronics and the response of the airplane may be limited by algorithms and parameters set in software.

For aircraft engineers, this technology simplified construction and maintenance and potentially enhanced safety. It meant that a computer could be put in the loop to limit what the pilot can command the airplane to do. This is an attractive capability providing engineers the ability to actually limit what the airplane will do rather than just writing a manual that warns operators not to exceed certain parameters. To improve safety, Airbus aircraft with fly-by-wire are limited in ways that change under different conditions. Parameters such as angle of attack, bank angle, roll rate, and engine power, among other things, are monitored, managed systemically, and limited, no matter what the pilot does with the stick. This has the effect of making it impossible to stall* the airplane, and it simplifies the number of things a pilot needs to remember to do in response to certain emergency situations.

* A "stall" in an airplane is not what the layman might think—the engine doesn't quit. This technical term means that the aircraft wing angle of attack is so steep that the wing ceases to produce lift (because airflow is disrupted over the upper surface). This is dangerous because it can lead to uncontrolled descent, especially a spin. The angle of attack in a stall is always the same for a given aircraft, but the stall speed varies as a function of many variables including weight, density altitude, and bank angle.

Boeing held steadfastly to the mechanical control model until the 777, which is Boeing's first fly-by-wire passenger aircraft. The reason for being late to adopt this technology was explained to me by a retired Boeing senior engineering director, "You just don't know what's going to happen to those electrons between the front and the back of the plane. I like a direct connection better."

For a time, the old view seemed the safest as Airbus worked out its fly-by-wire bugs in a very public fashion at an air show in France in 1988 with the crash of an A320 into a forest while performing a low-altitude, low-speed fly-by. There were a few other related crashes*, but in recent years the technology has been improved, proven in commercial service, and incorporated into all Airbus aircraft developed after the A320.

* Engineering bulletins issued by Airbus to operators indicated that certain aspects of the many interrelated inputs and controls were still being worked out at the time but apparently had not been applied to that specific airplane. Another A320 crashed in Bangalore, India, in 1990 and a third in France in 1992 fueled discussion about whether the new technology was ready for commercial service.

When Boeing adopted fly-by-wire on the 777, it came with a big difference—the ability for the pilot to override the computer's limits. Boeing argues that the pilot should be the ultimate judge of whether an emergency requires going beyond standard operating and safety parameters. As an example, a Boeing spokesman5 cited a China Air 747 incident in 1985 where the crew recovered from an out-of-control dive with a recovery that stressed the airplane at up to 4g's, something that Airbus fly-by-wire would limit to 2.5g's, perhaps limiting its capability to recover from some unusual attitudes.

Those who advocate unlimited pilot control believe that fly-by-wire limits are akin to saving the airplane from overstress but crashing it in the process. Advocates of fully integrated system control tell the old joke that describes the computer-controlled airplane of the future as having a seat in the cockpit for a pilot and a dog. The pilot's job is to the feed the dog, and the dog's job is to bite the pilot if he tries to touch anything.

Can technology save us from our own mistakes? Yes and no. Technology can improve the odds when we understand the range of possible actions of something like an aircraft or another technically controlled machine or system. But most businesses have many dimensions, and not all have accepted preprogrammed responses, so while technology may help, it is unlikely to stop business mistakes.

Debates about the appropriate use of technology are constant. In recent months, these have included issues such as whether the New York Stock Exchange should be replaced with an electronic exchange and whether the electric power grid in the United States can be improved with more technology. These and other examples involve complex systems of human, economic, and technical interaction with a range of parameters under normal conditions. Yet all have the potential to spiral out of control when there are multiple mistakes or unusual situations that were not anticipated and built into operating parameters and designs.

This is the conundrum that surrounds multiple mistakes. We can anticipate many, but not all, mistakes that people or systems will induce in business or the operation of complex machines. If we can anticipate mistakes, should we train people to avoid the circumstances or build technology-based systems that prevent those things from happening? If we build programmed error-control systems, will we induce more mistakes or prevent recovery from mistakes we did not anticipate?

We can use technology to improve business processes like the supply chain, but computers cannot decide how you will identify and design new products that go into that supply chain or where and how they will be manufactured. This is where physical systems and businesses diverge. Business systems still require judgment, thus we need to continue to refine and improve the quality of judgment and decision-making abilities of individuals operating businesses.

InformIT Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from InformIT and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information

To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.


Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites, develop new products and services, conduct educational research and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.


If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email information@informit.com.

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information

Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at customer-service@informit.com and we will process the deletion of a user's account.


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by InformIT. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive: www.informit.com/u.aspx.

Sale of Personal Information

Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to NevadaDesignatedRequest@pearson.com.

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents

California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure

Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact

Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice

We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020