The University of Liverpool Podcast Professor Simon Maskell is a Professor of Autonomous Systems at the University of Liverpool, and a Director of the Liverpool Big Data Network. His recent research has included work on the hunt for Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, which disappeared on 8 March 2014 while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The aircraft, to date, has not been located and all 239 people on board are presumed to have died.

To start a two-part series looking at big data and the ethics of autonomous machines, Simon appeared on the University of Liverpool Podcast. Here are the five insights we gained from the use of big data in the search for flight MH370.


5 insights about big data from the hunt for flight MH370

  1. Big data isn’t always what it seems
    Hundreds of aeroplanes were flying in the same area when MH370 disappeared. However, only one aircraft and its one experience at one point in time is of interest. “The drive towards personalised analytics means the data set that’s relevant to each individual is actually quite small. It normally gets hidden in a mass of other small data problems that together constitute what people think of as a big data problem,” says Simon. “There is a very, very small number of data, and those very few data have some information in them and it’s tricky to get that out. That’s the nub of what made MH370 a really tough problem to look at.”
  2. The retrieved data only revealed so much
    After the aircraft disappeared from radars after an hour into its flight, it continued to relay information. However, that information only gave an indication of whether it was moving away from or towards the satellite it was communicating with. “It doesn’t tell you anything about how it’s moving tangentially,” says Simon.
  3. The scale of computer analysis was enormous
    Computers quickly grappled with the available data relating to flight MH370, highlighting their strengths compared to human capabilities. “There would be nothing stopping a vast room full of human beings doing the analysis that has been done with MH370,” says Simon. “You just need a few hundred thousand people with a few hundred thousand hours each to spend on the problem.”
  4. However, some things can still only be done by humans
    “The army of computers that are going away, running all these tasks that a human being could have done, can run through… and tell you what the data says is most likely,” says Simon. What they find much more difficult, however, is making judgements about the thought process of the people in the cockpit.

    “A conscious pilot and an unconscious pilot are going to interact with the controls of the aircraft in fundamentally different ways. And a conscious pilot who has some malicious intent will almost certainly be thinking differently to another pilot… who was working in the best interest of the people on the aeroplane.”
  5. There are lessons for the development of self-driving cars
    The issue at the heart of big data – and for future developments like self-driving cars – appears to be whether a computer simply conducts huge numbers of calculations, or whether it needs to make decisions about how it’s going to view things.

    Simons says: “These scenarios that are outside the domain of experience of the computer, … (that’s where) I think there’s a need for a human to impart the knowledge that humans have, and the ability to make judgements when we don’t have knowledge. That’s probably something that human beings can do because we’re conscious whereas a computer – at least today – is not conscious.”

About this podcast

The University of Liverpool Podcast aims to bring listeners closer to some of the academic experts, authors and innovative thinkers from the University who, through their in-depth analyses, research and discoveries, are affecting positive change in the world today. Each episode features one or more of our academic experts discussing research in their specialist field. Subscribe to the University of Liverpool Podcast via iTunes, Tunein and Google Play Music (US and Canada only).


Interested in learning more about the University of Liverpool’s online IT programmes? Find out more about the MSc in Big Data Analytics and our other IT programmes.

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