TIME Security

Former NTSB Chairman: ‘We Need Cameras in the Cockpit’

A helicopter flies overhead as rescue workers work at the crash site of Germanwings passenger plane near Seyne-les-Alpes, France, on March 26, 2015.
Laurent Cipriani–AP A helicopter flies overhead as rescue workers work at the crash site of Germanwings passenger plane near Seyne-les-Alpes, France, on March 26, 2015.

Jim Hall is a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

We need cameras in the cockpit—and two crew members at all times

The tragic crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 has left the world in mourning. The 150 victims hailed from 18 different countries, including the United States. Right now, the families of the deceased and those investigating the accident are urgently trying to figure out what went wrong. One portion of the crucial black boxes, the cockpit voice recorder, though badly damaged, has been recovered and apparently reveals that the co-pilot was responsible for intentionally crashing the aircraft.

Due to the rugged and inaccessible terrain of the crash site and the high speed of impact, investigators are having a difficult time finding the flight data recorder. Unlike crashes over water, when an aircraft crashes over land, the pingers attached to the black box do not assist in locating the device. These black boxes will have to be recovered by rummaging through the wreckage on site.

When investigators do find the flight data recorder, essential details of Germanwings 9525 descent will be available, and a full picture of the crash will be drawn. But because this appears to be an intentional act, we will never truly understand the motive of the co-pilot. There is no black box for the mind.

During my time as chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, I led multiple investigations into commercial airliners being intentionally flown into the ground. This history of pilots committing suicide by crashing their planes dates back to the Japanese kamikaze pilots in World War II and continues to this day with the crashes of Mozambique Airlines Flight 470 in 2013, EgyptAir Flight 990 in 1999, and SilkAir Flight 185 in 1997. While checking on the emotional state of pilots is imperfect, it does occur. Pilots are screened during the hiring process: The Transportation Security Administration checks applicants’ backgrounds against terror watch-lists. Pilots are asked to disclose suicide attempts or any other psychological problems during their Federal Aviation Administration-mandated yearly physical exams. The FAA also asks doctors to form a general impression of the pilots’ emotional states. But it can be difficult to diagnose and identify emotional problems, especially if a pilot is not forthcoming.

There are two simple solutions to the problem of unstable pilots. The first is a recommendation made by the NTSB 15 years ago and renewed in January: Require cameras in the cockpit. Currently, the cockpit voice recorder allows investigators to listen to the cockpit. But without video, they cannot fully understand the actions of the pilots or make safety enhancements to prevent similar events from occurring in the future.

The second solution is to require at least two crew members in the cockpit at all times. During the crashes of the Mozambique Airlines, EgyptAir, and SilkAir flight, co-pilots compromised the aircraft while their partners left the cockpit, deliberately crashing the aircrafts and leaving hundreds dead. We still do not know what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, and an intentional crash is possible in that case, as well. In the U.S., standard policy is that a flight attendant enters the cockpit if a pilot steps out. If two members of the flight crew were present in the cockpit, it is possible these tragedies, as well as Germanwings Flight 9525, could have been prevented.

Flying is an extraordinarily safe form of transportation. The United States government and the aviation community have done an extraordinary job of ensuring the safety of the flying public. But the safety of flying is constantly evolving and can always be improved. The Germanwings tragedy manifests a loophole in safety procedures and must be rectified by requiring cameras and two members of the flight crew in the cockpit.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Germanwings Plane Crash: We Could Be Doing Much More To Prevent Pilot Suicide

A candle is lit in front of the house believed to belong to crashed Germanwings flight 4U 9524 co-pilot Andreas Lubitz in Montabaur, Germany on March 26, 2015.
Kai Pfaffenbach—Reuters A candle is lit in front of the house believed to belong to crashed Germanwings flight 4U 9524 co-pilot Andreas Lubitz in Montabaur, Germany on March 26, 2015.

Robert Goyer is the editor-in-chief of Flying magazine.

Hopefully the tragedy of Germanwings 9525 will get the message across that we need to act and act now.

We pilots are passionate about our most important duty: to deliver our precious cargo safely home to their loved ones. That a pilot would instead use the airplane he is flying as a weapon of mass murder defies understanding. Sadly, though, this is not the first time it has happened.

After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, regulators in the United States quickly mandated more secure cockpits. At the time I was critical of the move for one reason only: I feared that it would allow pilots to more easily take over flights and use the airplane to kill all aboard, as famously happened with EgyptAir Flight 990 from New York to Cairo in 1999.

In the last two decades, there have been a handful of airliner catastrophes that are known or suspected to be the result of pilot suicide. Just last year there was a close call. On Feb. 17, 2014, an Ethiopian Airlines copilot, Hailemedhin Abera Tegegn, locked the pilot out of the cockpit after he went to use the restroom — just as apparently happened on Germanwings 9525. The copilot in the Ethiopian Airlines incident kept flying the airplane. It had been on its way from Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, to Rome. The copilot eventually made a safe landing in Geneva (though the 767 was very low on fuel by then), asking for political asylum. All 202 people aboard, the co-pilot included, survived the terrifying ordeal. Tegegn was convicted in absentia just last week by the high court in Addis Ababa for hijacking his own plane.

Secure cockpit doors are here to stay. And since 9/11, there has not been a known successful breach of the cockpit of an airliner. Now that we have the terrorists at bay, we need to figure out how to prevent rogue pilots from taking over airliners.

One tactic that overseas airlines can employ beginning right now, which would bring them into line with U.S. practices, is to require two crewmembers to be in the cockpit at all times — which usually means a flight attendant entering the cockpit when a pilot uses the restroom. Norwegian Air Shuttle, easyJet, Air Canada, and Air Transat today announced such policies. It won’t be the sure answer to the hazard of a rogue pilot, but it’s a great start.

Another measure would be instituting psychological screening of pilots to try to find ones with sociopathic tendencies. It might not always work. Sometimes the first sign of mental illness is the last violent act of the perpetrator. But better that we at least try.

Lastly, we could encourage the development of flight computer systems that would prevent a pilot from doing something that made no sense, like programming a descent that would take the airplane into the side of a mountain. Modern flight decks have access to worldwide terrain databases. Even the small four-seat airplane I fly has one.

Can we lock a pilot out of the ability to do damage to an airplane? Probably not entirely, but we can go a long way toward that goal. It would cost money — but it would go a long way toward ending these horrifying mass killings by airliner. The warning airline executives and aviation regulators got from Ethiopian Airlines Flight 702 went unheeded. Hopefully the tragedy of Germanwings 9525 will get the message across that we need to act and act now.

Read next: Why We May Never Be Certain the Germanwings Crash Was Deliberate

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: March 26

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Al Qaeda and ISIS are locked in an ideological war, and for once, it’s good to be their mutual enemy.

By Daniel Byman and Jennifer Williams in Lawfare

2. For the millions left behind by America’s new economy, disability claims — legitimate or otherwise — are skyrocketing.

By Chana Joffe-Walt in Planet Money by National Public Radio

3. Maybe universities shouldn’t measure prestige by the number of applicants they turn away.

By Jon Marcus in the Hechinger Report

4. When younger women have heart attacks, they’re twice as likely to die as their male counterparts. Is medicine’s gender bias to blame?

By Maya Dusenbery in Pacific Standard

5. Can the triumph and tragedy of soccer help Harvard students appreciate the humanities?

By Colleen Walsh in the Harvard Gazette

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: March 25

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. ISIS can be beaten. But we need to think and plan now for what happens after that.

By Robert Joustra in the Globe and Mail

2. Facebook is still experimenting on you. It’s time to bring back informed consent.

By Ilka H. Gleibs in Psychology@LSE

3. What happens when we pay elected officials better? They start caring about voters more than special interests.

By Ian Chipman at Stanford Graduate School of Business

4. How can we spur innovation in U.S. advanced industries? Think beyond our borders.

By Kenan Fikri and Devashree Saha at the Brookings Institution

5. To cheaply reduce carbon in the atmosphere, we can reforest the planet — using data and drones.

By Emiko Jozuka in Wired.co.uk

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: March 24

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Lee Kuan Yew didn’t think Singapore could survive true democracy. After his death, Singapore must do just that.

By Max Boot in Commentary

2. Resilience means more than flexible infrastructure. Cities must open doors to creative vibrance through the arts.

By Jason Schupbach at 100 Resilient Cities

3. Why does China need the next Dalai Lama?

By the Economist

4. The robots of the near future aren’t threatening. They’re boring.

By Erik Sofge in Popular Science

5. Can we truly redesign the experience of death?

By Jon Mooallem in California Sunday

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Microsoft Is Getting Close to Perfecting a Universal Communicator

Some 40,000 people are using software program Skype Translator in hopes of achieving real-time translation

Gurdeep Pall was confident Skype’s automatic translation program would work. But as Microsoft’s corporate vice president in charge of Skype prepared to hold the first public demonstration of the program last May, Pall found himself worrying about the room itself. “Any sound that goes into the microphone, you basically have logic running trying to figure out what the sound said,” he says. “You can have feedback or you can have somebody coughing faraway that the mic picked up, somebody shifting far away, the squeak from their foot.”

Pall’s anxiety was for naught. An audience of several hundred reporters and industry insiders watched on as Pall and a native German speaker held a nearly flawless conversation through the company’s prototype of Skype Translator. Roughly a second after Pall Spoke, subtitles in German and English appeared at the bottom of the screen, and a synthetic Siri-like voice read the words aloud to the German caller. The audience murmured in astonishment, but the program didn’t falter as it shot back a translation from German to English. Pall, on the other hand, was flustered as his jitters about the room metastasized to two presenters who were whispering to one another nearby throughout the demonstration. “I’m thinking, ‘Get out of here!’” Pall recalls, laughing.

Researchers working on automatic translation technology like this are familiar with this blend of hope and anxiety. The concept of a universal translator has long been a fixture of science fiction, not to mention a dream of inventors and linguists since long before computers existed. The granodiorite slab announcing the kingly reign of Ptolemy V in Egypt circa 196 BC, better known as the Rosetta Stone, might be considered an early stab at the idea. In the 1930s, two inventors filed patents for “mechanical dictionaries” promising to translate words in real time. And in more recent decades, firms ranging from NEC to Jibbigo have periodically tried to crack the problem. But as practical reality, the idea has been perennially delayed.

Now, advances in so-called machine learning—computer programs that can essentially self-teach with enough exposure to spoken language—hope for a universal translator is increasingly replacing anxiety. What has changed from previous generations is that the underlying technology thrives through use, trial and error, recorded and reviewed, ad nasueam. The current crop of translation software gets smarter, researchers and programmers say, the more it absorbs. “The more data you have, the better you’re going to do,” explains Lane Schwartz, a linguistics professor at the University of Illinois.

Which is why Microsoft released a preview version of Skype Translator to a limited number of users last December. (The Redmond, Washington-based tech giant bought Skype for $8.5 billion in 2011.) The program is expected to reach a major milestone near the end of March. Late last year, Google announced its translation app for text would include a “conversation mode” for the spoken word. Baidu, the so-called Google of China, has had a similar feature available in its home market for several years. And the forthcoming release of the Apple Watch, a powerful computer with echoes of Dick Tracey’s famous wrist wear, has some speculating that near-instant translation might be the nascent wearables market’s killer app.

That leaves a handful of search giants—Microsoft, Google and Baidu—racing to fine-tune the technology. Andrew Ng, Baidu’s chief scientist likens what’s coming next to the space race. “It doesn’t work if you have a giant engine and only a little fuel,” he says. “It doesn’t work if you have a lot of fuel and a small engine.” The few companies that can combine the two, however, may blast ahead.

So Many Fails

There’s no shortage of false summits in the history of translation. Cold War footage from 1954 captured one of the earliest machine translators in action. One of the lead researchers predicted that legions of these machines might be used to monitor the entirety of Soviet communications “within perhaps 5 years.” The demonstration helped generate a surge of government funding, totalling $3 million in 1958, or $24 million in present-day dollars.

But by the 1960s, the bubble had burst. The government convened a panel of scientific experts to survey the quality of machine translations. They returned with an unsparing critique. Early translations were “deceptively encouraging,” the Automatic Language Processing Advisory Committee wrote in a 1966 report. Automatic translation, the panel concluded, “serves no useful purpose without postediting, and that with postediting the overall process is slow and probably uneconomical.”

Funding for machine translation was drastically curtailed in the wake of the report. It would be the first of several boom and bust cycles to buffet the research community. To this day, researchers are loath to predict how far they can advance the field. “There is no magic,” says Chris Wendt, who has been working on machine translation at Microsoft Research for nearly a decade. But he admits that the latest improvements resulting from artificial intelligence can, at times, be mystifying. “There are things that you don’t have an explanation for why it works,” he says.

Wendt works out of Building 99, Microsoft’s research hub on the western edge of its Redmond campus. The building’s central atrium is wrapped by four floors of glass-walled conference rooms, where Microsoft engineers and researchers can be seen working on pretty much any project they please. The open-ended aspect of their work is a point of pride enshrined in the lab’s mission statement. “It states, first and foremost, that our goal as an institution is to move the state of the art forward,” said Rick Rashid in 2011, twenty years after he launched the lab, according to a Microsoft blog post celebrating the milestone. “It doesn’t matter what part of the state of the art we’re moving forward, and it doesn’t say anything in that first part of the mission statement about Microsoft.”

In other words, if Microsoft’s researchers want to tinker with strange and unproven technologies, say motion-sensing cameras or holographic projectors, nobody is likely to stop them. In the mid-2000’s, there were few technologies quite as strange and unproven as “deep neural networks,” algorithms that can parse through millions of spoken words and spot the underlying sound patterns. Say, “pig,” for instance, and the algorithm will identify the unique sound curve of the letter “p.” Expose it to more “p” words and the shape of that curve becomes more refined. Before long, the algorithm can detect a “p” sound across multiple languages, and exposure to those languages further attunes its senses. “P” words in German (prozent) improves its detection of “p” words in English (percent).

Those same lessons, it turns out, apply to volume, pitch or accents. A lilt at the end of the sentence may indicate that the speaker has asked a question. It may also indicate that the speaker talks like a Valley girl. Expose the deep learning algorithm to a range of voices, however, and it may begin to notice the difference. This profusion of voices, which used to overwhelm supercomputers, now improves their performance. “Add training data that is not perfect, like people speaking in a French accent, and it does not degrade overall quality for people speaking without a French accent,” says Wendt.

The results of deep neural network research in language applications stunned Microsoft’s research team in 2011. Error rates in transcription, for instance, plummeted by 50%—from one out of every four words to one out of eight. Until then, the misunderstood word was one of the most persistent and insurmountable obstacles to machine translation. “The system cannot recover from that because it takes that word at face value and translates it,” explains Wendt. “Employing deep learning on the speech recognition part brought the error rate low enough to attempt translation.”

Speaking into Skype Translator, the commercial face of all of Microsoft’s linguistic research, shows how far things have come. The sound of your voice zips into Microsoft’s cloud of servers, where it is parsed by a panoply of software developed by the company. The team that developed those green squiggly lines under grammatical errors in Word documents laid the groundwork for automatic punctuation, for example. The team that created Microsoft’s translation app, which is currently used to translate posts on Facebook and Yelp, provided the engine for text translation. The team that developed the voice for Cortana, Microsoft’s voice-activated personal assistant similar to Apple’s Siri, helped develop the voice for Skype.

When Microsoft’s researchers debuted a prototype of Skype Translator at the company’s version of an annual science fair, they enclosed it in a cardboard telephone booth, modeled after the time-traveling machine from the Dr. Who television series. Co-founder Bill Gates stepped inside and phoned a Spanish speaker in Argentina. The speaker had been warned that when the caller said, “Hi, it’s Bill Gates,” it wasn’t a joke. It really would be Bill Gates. What did Gates say? Pretty much what everyone says at first, according to the team: “Hi. How are you? Where are you?”

My Turn

I posed the same questions to Karin, a professional translator hired for a hands-on demonstration at Microsoft’s Building 99. She answered in Spanish, and paused as Skype’s digital interpreter read a translated reply: “Hello, nice to meet you. Now I’m in Slovakia.”

The program has the basic niceties of conversation down cold, and for a moment, the Star Trek fantasy of a “universal translator” seemed tantalizingly within reach. But then a few hiccups emerged as the conversation progressed. Her reason for visiting New York was intelligible, but awkwardly phrased: “I want to meet all of New York City and I want to attach it with a concert of a group I like,” from which I gathered that she wanted to see a concert during her visit. I asked her if the program often faltered in her experience. “In the beginning,” came the translated reply, “but each time it gets better. It’s like one child first. There were things not translated, but now he’s a teenager and knows a lot of words.”

With some 40,000 people signed up to use Skype Translator, it has been getting a crash course in the art of conversation, and those words could work wonders on its error rates. An odd quirk of machine translation systems is that they tend to excel at translating European Union parliamentary proceedings. For a long time the EU produced some of the best training data out there: a raft of speeches professionally translated into dozens of languages.

But Microsoft is rapidly accumulating its own record of casual conversations. Users of the preview version are informed that their utterances may be recorded and stored in an anonymous, shuffled pile that makes it impossible to trace the words back to their source, Microsoft stresses. The team expects the error rate to drop continuously as Skype Translator absorbs slang, proper names and idioms into its system. Few companies can tap such a massive corpus of spoken words. “Microsoft is in a good position,” says Wendt. “Google is also in a good position. Then there’s a big gap between us and everyone else.”

For now, the Skype team is focused on adding users and driving down error rates, with the long-run goal of releasing instant translation as a standard feature for Skype’s 300 milllion users. “Translation is something we believe ought to be available to everybody for free,” says Pall.

That raises an awkward question for professional translators like Karin. “Do you feel threatened by Skype Translator,” I asked her through the program. “Not yet,” was her translated reply, read aloud by her fast-developing, free digital rival.

Read next: Here’s Why Microsoft Is Giving Pirates the Next Windows for Free

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TIME Autos

How Silicon Valley Suddenly Fell in Love With Cars

Tesla Model S.
Tesla Tesla's battery makes it cleaner than gas-guzzling alternatives—but think about what else it's made of.

The last great remaining American preoccupation tech hasn't yet tackled is the automobile. That's about to change

“The American really loves nothing but his automobile,” Gavin Stevens says in Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust. “Because the automobile has become our national sex symbol.” Given that longtime infatuation, you’d think Silicon Valley’s tech companies would have been eager to get into the auto industry before now. Instead, many are surprised that it’s happening at all.

Ever since the personal computer became mainstream, Silicon Valley has been inventing or reinventing new gadgets: the music player, the phone, the computer itself, first as a portable, now as a tablet. Amazon remade the shopping mall and put it on a screen. Netflix and YouTube subverted the TV set, and now Google’s Nest is going after other household appliances. This year, Apple is reworking the wristwatch, casting tech as jewelry.

The last great remaining American preoccupation that tech hasn’t yet tackled is the automobile. Much of this has to do with logistics–selling phones or music players is child’s play next to the expensive, highly regulated business of manufacturing cars–but there’s also a historical mindset at work. Detroit, with its combustion engines and metallic gears, was the epitome of an analog era that Silicon Valley displaced. The car was an anachronism, however beloved.

No longer. Google has been working on self-driving cars for a number of years. Uber has started looking into them as well. Now, according to the ever-churning Apple rumor mill, the Cupertino giant is working on a stealth car project. For tech companies, the automobile has gone from a super-sized docket to park a smartphone while you drive to a gadget that can be reimagined from the ground up with digital technology.

The sudden shift is happening for a few reasons. First, with PCs, tablets and smartphone markets close to saturation, tech giants are looking for new markets to invade with their innovations. Second, the car market seems ripe for a makeover. American automakers like GM may be reviving post-financial crisis, but the U.S. looks to have reached “peak driving:” Annual miles driven per person is down 9% from 1995, and even more among young drivers.

But the biggest single reason tech suddenly loves the car is Tesla. The company founded by Elon Musk in 2003 to make electric cars has become much more: It has fused the automaker with the tech company, and not only built a cultural bridge between Detroit and Silicon Valley but showed that both were converging toward each other.

Tesla was a wake-up call to automakers that had grown complacent about innovation. It showed that technology was a powerful way to differentiate a particular model from the herd, and that if automakers wanted to reach out to younger consumers, they should embrace the kinds of technology they enjoy. Soon, you began to hear auto executives talk about “smarter cars” and roadways as “connected networks” structured like the Internet (15 years ago, that simile ran mostly in the opposite direction).

Read more: How Apple Is Invading Our Bodies

Google CEO Larry Page has said his interest in driverless cars stems from the inefficiency of roadways, which not only cost lives but waste worker time in traffic jams. (It doesn’t hurt, either, that driverless cars could offer commuters more opportunity to look at Google ads.) Uber is also researching self-driving cars to lower costs for its passenger service as well as a planned delivery service.

The loudest buzz surrounds Project Titan, a rumored Apple car that in reality could be pretty much anything: an electric vehicle, a leased minivan, a driverless car, a ploy to acquire Tesla, a bluff to pressure automakers into putting its CarPlay software in their vehicles, or a clever Apple hoax trolling Apple rumor-mongers. Wall Street analysts, though, think an Apple car is the likely bet, and if so the marriage of Detroit and Silicon Valley is a matter of time.

If nothing else, Apple’s rumored entry into automobiles seems to have turned up the heat. Last week, Musk said Tesla would start offering “autopilot” technology in its cars this summer. Google said its more ambitious driverless-car system would be ready for broad consumption in five years.

But the dark-horse in this new race may be Samsung, which according to Thomson Reuters has “has the largest and broadest collection of patents in the automotive field including a very large interest in batteries and fuel cells for next generation vehicles.” If automobile technology boils down to a patent race, Samsung may end up having an edge. Samsung even has some history in car manufacturing.

The end goal of these tech aspirations in the automotive industry may well be partnerships with established manufacturers. After all, what company is dying to break into a low-margin heavy industry? Many auto executives scoff at the idea that jumping from smartphones to cars is good idea. They may be surprised. Cars are just another form of technology, albeit one in need of an upgrade. And who is better positioned to upgrade them Apple or Google?

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: March 23

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Modern American life — from smartphones to cars and even missiles — depends on rare earth elements. But we’ve let China take over the industry.

By Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes

2. Men in New York own 2.5 times as many businesses as women. A new program aims to innovate against that gap.

By Alexis Stephens in Next City

3. In 2014, global violence surged, drawing a sharp contrast between the developed world and everywhere else.

By Peter Apps in the Project for the Study of the 21st Century

4. Tunisia’s response to a terrorist attack provides a hopeful model.

By the editorial board of the Christian Science Monitor

5. Want to change how you see the world? Rewire your brain by learning a second language.

By Nicholas Weiler in Science Magazine

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

How Livestreaming Could Save Your Town’s Orchestra

LA Opera music director and conductor James Conlon rehearses "Lucia Di Lammermoor" with the orchestra at Los Angeles Music Center on the on March 7, 2014 in Los Angeles.
Joe Klamar—AFP/Getty Images LA Opera music director and conductor James Conlon rehearses "Lucia Di Lammermoor" with the orchestra at Los Angeles Music Center on the on March 7, 2014 in Los Angeles.

Orchestras are struggling, but streaming online could help

Audiences at Toledo, Ohio’s orchestra are thinning out slowly, like spring ice on nearby Lake Erie. The orchestra’s budget has shrunk nearly 4% over as many years, forcing it to rely increasingly on donors and special concerts to make ends meet. The Toledo Symphony Orchestra’s average concert attendance sank from 3,600 in 2004 to about 3,400 in 2012, and the Great Recession took its toll on the group’s budget as well.

“We have been challenged,” Kathy Carroll, the orchestra’s president says, “no doubt about it.”

In an experiment to boost attendance, Toledo Symphony Orchestra is one of the many orchestras around the world investing in streaming concerts over the Internet. For its upcoming 2015-2016 season, the orchestra is planning to livestream at least one of its performances. The idea is to reach out to far-away audiences and students, making its music more accessible than ever. For the fourth-largest in Ohio with a budget of $5.6 million, it’s also a bid to stay with the times.

“It’s not as if we don’t do this, we’ll be doomed, but we also recognize we live in the present,” says Carroll.

Toledo’s orchestra is actually doing relatively well compared to other local classical groups. Americans attended classical music performances 72.8 million times in 2002. By 2012, that number dropped to 53.1 million. The Philadelphia Orchestra filed for bankruptcy in 2011, and even New York’s famed Metropolitan Opera cut salaries in August after reporting a $22 million deficit. Decades-old ensembles face an uncertain future as classical audiences age and concert-goers stay home.

Toledo’s story is like that of many orchestras across the country: classical music’s aging audience and the new ways people spend their free time is hurting musicians from Maine to California. That’s partially because young people want entertainment to be more flexible, and they may not be willing to spend money on an hour or two on the town for classical music, says Jesse Rosen, president of the League of American Orchestras. In other words, they want the concert come to them — and livestreaming is an obvious way to make that happen.

“Younger generations show very different attitudes about how they interact with performing arts,” says Rosen. “They have whole new values for what makes for a satisfying evening out.”

Toledo’s first foray into new video technologies began with three concerts last season in which screens on either side of the stage showed musicians up close, a la a sports arena. The cost of the Toledo Symphony’s video “peristyle” experience—the name evokes a Greco-Roman courtyard, burbling fountains and colonnaded gardens—would have added $4 to each ticket, but it was covered by local donors. Each of the three shows with accompanying video conjured booked seats — as well as grumbles from some more traditional audience members about the visual distractions.

Other orchestras have tried similar experiments in the past. The most well-known of which is the Berlin Philharmonic, which has charged for subscriptions to its streaming portals and smart television apps since 2009. The Vienna State Opera recently established its own live streaming service, and the Bavarian State Opera offers some live streams for free. Medici.TV features concert live streaming from ensembles around the world for a subscription fee.

Here in the United States, the Detroit Symphony began offering streaming in May 2011, bringing the bankrupt city’s ensemble international recognition. Detroit’s performances have accumulated over 500,000 views, and most of its streamed events attract more pairs of eyeballs online than there are seats in the Detroit Orchestra Hall. Says Anne Parsons, CEO of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra: “The future patron is a digital patron and a live experience patron.”

The challenge orchestras face is turning video streams into revenue rivers—something a small, relatively unknown orchestra may have trouble doing. Still, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s online streaming program has fueled contributions, Parsons said. But income is perhaps a secondary goal for classical musicians, an often idealistic crew.

“There’s nothing like a performance of live acoustical music,” says Carroll of Toledo. “It seems to me, in this world, a refuge.”

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: March 20

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. The prison system is costly and rarely rehabilitates prisoners. Imagine a better way to transition inmates to freedom.

By Mark A.R. Kleiman, Angela Hawken, & Ross Halperin in Vox

2. Lawmakers should listen to the budget hawks, not the defense hawks.

By Robert Gard and Angela Canterbury in Defense One

3. For teenage girls, it’s possible to shift “attention bias” — literally focusing them on happy faces instead of sad ones — and fight the risk of depression.

By Jennifer Kahn in Pacific Standard

4. The next generation of American workers isn’t prepared to take over the jobs of departing baby boomers. The cost of this failure will be enormous.

By Jennifer Bradley in the Brookings Essay

5. As a four-year college education slips further out of reach, community college has some important lessons to teach us.

By Josh Wyner in the Miami Herald

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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