Future Tense

Future Tense Newsletter: A Darkly Comical Programming Error Shows the Human Assumptions Behind Code

A plane takes off at sunrise or sunset.
Dominik Scythe/Unsplash

Drop-down menus on online forms: They could be the death of us.

On Thursday, journalist and programmer Dan Nguyen pointed out a darkly comic incident report connected to a flight over the summer. During a pandemic hiatus, an unnamed airline operator upgraded the system that helps ensure an accurate load sheet—the document tabulating the estimated weight of the passengers, crew, cargo, etc. The problem: The new system included titles and assumed that anyone listed as “Miss” must be a child. The incident report for the July 21 flight from Birmingham, England, to Mallorca, Spain, says:

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“The system allocated them a child’s standard weight of 35 kg as opposed to the correct female standard weight of 69 kg. Consequently, with 38 females checked in incorrectly and misidentified as children, the G-TAWG takeoff mass from the load sheet was 1,244 kg below the actual mass of the aircraft.”

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The report details that the crew noticed a discrepancy between the load sheet and a flight plan document that listed a higher weight total. “The commander recalled thinking that the number was high but plausible,” it says. So they took off. In the end, no one was injured—but things could have gone differently. How could this happen? According to the report, “The system programming was not carried out in the UK, and in the country where it was performed the title Miss was used for a child, and Ms for an adult female, hence the error.”

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It’s a remarkable lesson in how cultural assumptions can be translated into code. It’s also a lesson in how humans work: Before the Mallorca flight, the error had been noticed, and workers were checking the bookings to manually change each  relevant “Miss” to “Ms.” A software fix was also implemented, but: “A combination of the teams not working over the weekend and the ‘online’ check-in being open early on Monday 20 July, 24 hours ahead of the flight, meant the incorrectly allocated passenger weights were not corrected.”

Perhaps it will be a long time before robots take all of our jobs.

Here are some stories from the recent past of Future Tense.

Wish We’d Published This

I Called Off My Wedding. The Internet Will Never Forget,” by Lauren Goode, Wired

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The first season of the new podcast The Opportunist is unsettling, to say the least. The first season profiles “Sherry Shriner, a midwest mom and life-long churchgoer turned internet cult leader” and the murder trial that ensued after one of her estranged followers was killed by his partner. The Opportunist details the ways that the internet can allow desperate people to find comfort in a community in which people reinforce one another’s bizarre beliefs. (We’re talking stuff involving aliens, reptiles disguised as humans, and protective substance called orgone that Shriner and her acolytes believed would protect them from evil, with sprinklings of the Bible.) But it’s told with compassion, rather than the pointing and laughing that so often happens when storytellers try to explore conspiracy theories and cults.

What Next: TBD

On this week’s episode of Slate’s technology podcast, host Lizzie O’Leary spoke with journalist Molly Fischer about her recent article for the Cut, “The Therapy-App Fantasy,” and how the pandemic has contributed to an explosion in services that promise to offer you real therapy from your own couch. Last week, Lizzie and the Washington Post’s Dan Diamond discussed the vicious new battle over vaccine passports.

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Wednesday, April 14, noon Eastern: How Will We Learn in the Future?

Thursday, April 22,  noon Eastern: Patrick Radden Keefe on his new book Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.