John Pavlus

A View from John Pavlus

F-22’s Human Interface Kills Humans?

The world’s most high-tech fighter jet may be lethal to its own pilots.

  • February 22, 2013

[Note: Factual errors in this post have been corrected. See below for an explanation of what was changed.]

Think Windows 8 is a usability nightmare? Two pilots of the infamously expensive F-22 fighter jet recently went on 60 Minutes to describe how this “phenomenal, phenomenal machine” poisons its pilots’ air supply in the course of normal flight. But the plane is also smart enough to land itself with no help from its passed-out pilot. This is UX design by way of Brazil: the human interface is so bad that it actively tries to kill you the entire time you’re using it, and so good that it can deliver your comatose body back to safety with no help from you at all.  One of the pilots in the 60 Minutes report tells of a colleague who was rendered so out of it that he managed to land the plane without even realizing that he’d hit a tree on the way down.

Military technology has never been a paragon of usability, and the very notion of “user experience” becomes a kind of moral paradox in this context anyway. Drone warfare “solves” the UX problem of operating an F-22: never before has it been simpler, easier, and less physically dangerous for a human being to fire airborne missiles at other human beings. Of course, this highly effective user experience has its own unintended drawbacks. The AR-15, which Quartz reporter Christopher Mims called the “iPhone 5 of guns”, has such a “good” UX that even an untrained lunatic can use the technology with hellish effectiveness. Chemical weapons and neutron bombs were both invented from what could be characterized as a desire to make the user experience of waging war more “humane”; meanwhile, actually using these technologies would be considered a crime against humanity.

What should “good” user experience design for weapons and military technology look like? As robotics lets us separate the “user” from the “experience” ever further, it’s definitely food for thought.

[Notes on the correction: My original version of this post referenced an article summarizing the 60 Minutes report, and which stated that “an F-22 … can apparently stay in the air and even land itself with its pilot more or less checked out.” The original 60 Minutes report doesn’t corroborate these claims about the F-22’s capabilities. I regret the error.]

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