Big changes are coming, but can safety at sea survive the experience ?

Until very recently, the designers of computers were unable to deal with what is called “SLAM”—Simultaneous Localization and Mapping—the process by which human beings can mentally map out a new location, including hazards, as they move through it. By 2011, however SLAM was largely solved by computer scientists using Microsoft’s KINECT gaming hub, which consists of an array of sensors and processors that are now very compact and quite inexpensive. Problems like language recognition and SLAM have until recently prevented robots from working alongside human beings, as well as on tasks that are not precisely defined.  A sign of things to come showed up early in December, when Google bought Boston Dynamics, which builds military prototype robots similar to a type that is dubbed BAXTER. This type of robot can, it is claimed, work safely with human beings, and is easy to reprogram. It is also quite reasonably priced, as is the software that goes with it.

Computer science has given rise to what students call Moore’s Law, which holds that computers today are twice as powerful as the computers of two years ago, and possibly those of just 18 months ago. Most of us have gotten used to speedy technological growth, but are not used to what it means; whatever has just been developed, will be eclipsed by what is just around the corner.

The implications for seafarers, and many of the jobs that they perform, are unclear. We all know how technological change has eliminated many trades and skills in recent years. While the commonplace wisdom holds that jobs in industry have disappeared to China and Bangladesh, the truth is that manufacturing employment in China has itself been falling. Mechanization now dominates large scale construction, manufacturing and agriculture. Cheap and compact computing power—and the fact that within the next 10 years, computers could be 100 times smarter and cheaper than they are today—tells us that the merchant ship of tomorrow, meaning 10 years from now, is likely to be very different from what we imagine today. Crew sizes will be much smaller, and—except for a few officers—many of the jobs now performed by human beings, including virtually all of what is today called the engine department, are likely to disappear. Incredibly, the “routine of navigation” will also disappear, along with many jobs on the bridge, and on deck

While the economies created in vessel operation will be welcome to some of us, the implications, across a broad expanse of what today is called “maritime trades” are mind-boggling. We must seriously take into account that robot technology will really change the maritime world, and in ways that have not been understood— by, for example, the framers of the present-day Maritime Labor and STCW Conventions.

Much ink is being spilled over the effects on ship design of emissions controls, ballast water management and other environmental bugaboos. Much less is said about how “automation”—i.e., robotics, will entirely change ships and their operations, as well as the kind and amount of crewing will be needed, ten years from now. The changes wrought by robotics, aboard ship, will be traumatic, far-reaching and sudden.  Some years ago, when the STCW Convention was up for revision, at the IMO, the Danish delegation fought hard for single-person watchkeeping. Many of us were shocked. It’s quite clear, now, that the Danes were just thinking ahead.

Happy New Year, and Brave New World, too!

Author: Clay Maitland