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Reflections on the 5th European Congress in Aerospace Medicine

After many years, I have finally kept a promise to Laura Drudi by putting fingers to keyboard and typing an article for The Orbiter. This one’s for you Laura!

What a joy it was to partake in the European Conference on Aviation Medicine in Oslo this year. Listening to engaging talks on aviation medicine, reuniting with old colleagues, and making new friends made it truly special. I also enjoyed touring Oslo. From the Fram, a ship used on numerous Norwegian Arctic and Antarctic expeditions, to the Nobel Peace Center, to Oslo’s amazing waterfront with spectacular restaurants, this city is a place you should add to your travel itinerary, whether for business or pleasure.

The lecturers enlightened us on several issues facing aerospace medicine along with possible solutions. The German Wings accident has spurred European flight surgeons to find new ways of screening pilots for mental illness and helping those with such conditions do their jobs safely. Another lecturer spoke about developing technologies to reduce pilot workload at peak times during flight. Haptic alert devices, heads up displays, and instruments for monitoring hypoxia and drowsiness in pilots were among them.

Two special guests joined us. One told a story and another played music. Børge Ousland, a polar explorer, showed us stunning pictures of his trip to the North Pole. One picture showed frostbite turning his nose and cheeks brown with a texture resembling a fire-roasted marshmallow. During the Gala dinner, one of Norway’s best trumpet players, Ole Edvard Antonsen, played a beautiful piece of music with pictures of the far north scrolling in the background. The richness of timbre he generated from his instrument captivated the entire delegation.

As we examine these rapid advances in aviation technology, the German Wings tragedy, the marvels of human endurance in Børge Ousland’s trek to the North Pole, and the beauty of Ole Edvard Antonsen’s trumpeting skills, a fundamental question arises. Where do humans fit in the future of aerospace? Even with this wondrous automation of tasks by computers equipped with artificial intelligence, lecturers emphasized the continuing need for humans in the loop to keep air travel safe. The tragedy of 80-90% of aircraft accidents being caused by human error did not alter this conclusion. They cited pilots’ abilities to adapt to changing circumstances as a unique advantage people have over machines. When it comes to dexterity, creativity, and pattern recognition, humans also still beat computers. From the factory floors of Boeing to Amazon’s warehouses, companies require people to be involved in manufacturing aircraft parts and selecting products to be shipped to customers. Artists still compose superior music to artificial intelligence algorithms, even though this is becoming a contested arena. Though humans still have the advantage in many areas, pilots and astronauts must continue enhancing their uniquely human skills to remain competitive. Moreover, they must interact in new and innovative ways with hardware and software. Blending the strengths of human and machine while having each safeguard against the other’s weaknesses will make terrestrial flight and space travel safer in the years to come.

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