People are understandably excited about the remarkable performance of IBM’s Watson computer on the Jeopardy Challenge in which the computer trounced the two all-time human Jeopardy champs. (See http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-12464447 and numerous other online sources.) Some people don’t like it much, and some think it’s a great step forward. But pretty much everyone agrees that it’s an extraordinary accomplishment.

Many people assume that any sufficiently powerful computer would easily beat humans at such an endeavor, but that’s not so. Of course, Watson had near instant access to trillions of bytes of data and it can certainly crunch that data far faster than any person could. But that alone doesn’t explain why Watson won.

Watson won because it was able to make sound decisions about the information it had and whether the answers it came up with for the questions posed by Jeopardy were reliable enough for it to risk making a bet on its findings. Because it was able to make accurate decisions so quickly, it dominated the match. So Watson’s real secret was neither its vast store of data nor its blazing speed. It was it ability to manage decisions quickly, accurately, and consistently.

So what does this have to do with the Crash of Flight 447?  Air France Flight 447 was a scheduled commercial flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009, killing all 216 passengers and 12 crew members. To date the black boxes have not yet been recovered from the ocean floor, and they may never be.

Nevertheless, experts have assessed the circumstances and come up with a very convincing explanation as to how the crash was caused. This is explained in detail in a show broadcast on the PBS show NOVA. (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/space/crash-flight-447.html)

Basically, it appears that Flight 447 inadvertently flew into a very intense thunderstorm for which, for reasons explained on the broadcast, it’s radar was not able to provide sufficient warning. It encountered supercooled water — that it liquid water cooled far below normal freezing temperatures — which instantly crystallizes when it comes into contact with a solid object.

The supercooled water immediately froze up all three of the aircraft’s airspeed indication sensors. The highly intelligent autopilot system, which depends on knowing airspeed to fly the aircraft was suddenly left without this critical data. So, rather than risk making a wrong decision, the system shut down. This in turn precipitated a series of disastrous events which occurred faster than the flight crew could respond. The result was that, within four minutes, the aircraft crashed into the ocean.

The lesson some might take from this is that we should avoid the use of intelligent decision management (DM) technology. And this would be exactly the wrong conclusion. The crash of Flight 447 was not caused by its use of intelligent DM technology. It was caused by the use of poorly designed and implemented DM technology.

In the NOVA broadcast, experts explain how the crew could have responded to the events in such a way as to prevent the aircraft from crashing. Yet the steps which the crew could have taken to prevent the crash could also have been taken by the autopilot system. Certainly, flying a commercial jet without airspeed indicators is highly challenging. But there’s nothing about the corrective action needed that is beyond the capabilities of a well-designed autopilot system.

Unfortunately, the system dumped the problem in the hands of the human flight crew with little notice. Overwhelmed by a series of problems indications without a clear indication of the source, the flight crew failed to take the necessary precautionary measures which might have saved the flight and thus sealed its doom.

So the crash of flight 447 was not caused by the use of intelligent DM technology. It was caused by the failure to use intelligent DM technology effectively. In this case, more, rather than less, DM might well have prevented the crash.

For businesses, the take away is this. Intelligent decision management can be very powerful — far more powerful than must businesses recognize. But, as businesses put intelligent DM in place, they must think carefully about how it is used — not using too much in the wrong applications, but not limiting its use too much either.

The biggest mistake business could make would be to not use these emerging intelligent DM technologies at all. As their competitors use DM to increase productivity, improve customer service, and respond more quickly to changing markets, businesses which aren’t using intelligent decision management at all are the ones which will really find themselves in Jeopardy!