AI, AI Cap'n!
Commonly associated in popular culture with androids that talk and respond like humans, the term Artificial Intelligence covers a wide range of capabilities
I recently explored the notion that science fiction had distorted, if not altogether destroyed, the promise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) by endorsing a dystopian future in countless novels, short stories and films.
In Blade Runner 2049 is the product of decades of fear propaganda. It’s time to get enlightened about AI and optimistic about the future (LinkedIn Pulse, published on October 5, 2017) I drew on news from several months ago that more than 100 experts in robotics and artificial intelligence were calling on the UN to ban the development and use of killer robots is a reminder of the power of humanity’s collective imagination.
Stimulated by countless science fiction books and films, I argued, robotics and AI had become a potent feature of what futurist Alvin Toffler termed ‘future shock’. AI and robots have become the public’s ‘technology bogeymen’, more fearsome curse than technological blessing.
These concerns appear to emanate from decades of titillation, driven by pulp science fiction writers. Such writers are insistent on foretelling a dark, foreboding future where intelligent machines, loosed from their binds, destroy mankind. A case in point - this autumn, a sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner has been released. Blade Runner, and 2017’s Blade Runner 2049, are of course a glorious tour de force of story-telling and amazing special effects. The concept for both films came from US author Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in which androids are claimed to possess no sense of empathy eventually require killing ("retiring") when they go rogue. Dick's original novel is an entertaining, but an utterly bleak vision of the future, without much latitude to consider a brighter, more optimistic alternative.
But let's get real here. Fiction is fiction; science is science. For the men and women who work in the technology industry the notion that myriad Frankenstein monsters can be created from robots and AI technology is assuredly both confused and histrionic.
In the maritime industry the interpretation of AI is much more sober and practical; but no less compelling for all of that. And the pace of anticipated change is quickening! For example, the Rolls-Royce led Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative (AAWA) last year published a whitepaper to coincide with its presentations at the Autonomous Ship Technology Symposium 2016 in Amsterdam.
The paper outlined the Project’s vision of how remote and autonomous shipping will become a reality. Speaking at the Symposium Oskar Levander, Rolls-Royce, Vice President of Innovation – Marine, said: “This is happening. It’s not if, it’s when. The technologies needed to make remote and autonomous ships a reality exist. The AAWA project is testing sensor arrays in a range of operating and climatic conditions in Finland and has created a simulated autonomous ship control system which allows the behaviour of the complete communication system to be explored. We will see a remote controlled ship in commercial use by the end of the decade.”
The AAWA whitepaper explores the research carried out to date on the business case for autonomous applications, the safety and security implications of designing and operating remotely operated ships, the legal and regulatory dimensions and the existence and readiness of a supplier network to deliver commercially applicable products in the short to medium term.
Meanwhile in Japan, shipping companies are taking practical steps to build self-navigating cargo ships. Working alongside shipbuilders, their goal is to develop new technology that can predict malfunctions, reduce maritime accidents and improve efficiency. Their plan is to implement an AI-driven steering system that could lay out the shortest, safest and most fuel-efficient routes based on information about things like weather and any obstacles that might be in a ship's way.
Participating companies have agreed to share both expertise and costs, which are expected to top hundreds of millions of dollars, and they hope to construct around 250 ships with the new technology. Ultimately, the companies aim to implement completely unmanned shipping at some point in the future. Back to Rolls-Royce again, and the company has now announced plans to develop remote-controlled ships that it hopes to have ready in the very near future, while it has also unveiled its vision of a land-based control centre that the company believes will remotely monitor and control the unmanned ships of the future. And the futurism doesn’t end there, it just becomes more phenomenal. In 2020, US company, Natilus, plans to operate huge unmanned planes which could carry 200,000 pounds of goods across the world. A 30-foot prototype must pass test runs first though.
These, so far, only imagined capabilities are to be enhanced with ‘machine learning’, a subset of artificial intelligence, in which algorithms analyse data and, based on the knowledge gleaned in the results, adjust their logic on an ongoing basis to provide a more accurate analysis. For example, machine learning analyses factors such as how many vessels are at berth, the number of import containers discharged on certain days, how many export or empty containers were received, and how many gate transactions were recorded.
The AI future is therefore grounded in a machine’s ability to gather and analyse logistics data thereby allowing shippers, freight forwarders, and carriers to make vastly more informed planning decisions to help optimise the travel time, cost, and resources needed for moving cargo. Commonly associated in popular culture with androids that talk and respond like humans, the term Artificial Intelligence covers a wide range of capabilities, from driverless vehicles to the extraction of and intelligent dissemination of data.
In the context of the maritime world, AI is currently most focused on large-scale number crunching that can analyse and organise data from different sources, order it, and then use it for decision-making.
The future has truly arrived; avert your gaze no more.