Autonomy and the risks of modern living

It is difficult – if not impossible – to escape from a deluge of opinion on the benefits of digitalisation and how the future is one where big data and AI will dominate the world of shipping, but are current events, some connected with coronavirus, a wakeup call highlighting the downsides that may not have been fully thought through? It isn’t being a Luddite to say that over-reliance on technology could well be the downfall of those that do not have an analogue back-up to fall back on.

Official reaction to the coronavirus has varied around the globe with some countries – notably China, South Korea and Italy putting whole towns under lockdown. Commercial organisations outside the quarantine areas have been left to make their own decisions but some have felt it wise to shut up shop and allow staff to work from home.

Most of us live a ‘connected’ life to some degree and we do rely on our smart phones and apps for a wide range of social activities, but we would be hard pushed to carry out a full days work with just a smart phone and little else. Some jobs can be performed on the go with a laptop and a phone so long as there is a reliable internet connection which isn’t a given even in some of the largest cities in the developed world.

At the recent ShipInsight Conference, Future Technology was one of the subjects on the programme. Quite a lot of the debate was on the benefits and risks of autonomy, a topic that was also covered in the session on Navigation. As always when this topic is under discussion there were several questions about interaction between manned and unmanned vessels.

A fully autonomous vessel with AI capability might not need human intervention, but one view of automation is having a human presence in a shore facility potentially controlling a number of unmanned vessels. The limitations of the latter situation with regard to power outages at the facility or sudden incapacitation by illness of the human were raised and the solution of having multiple shore facilities proposed.

Leaving aside the economics of having more than one facility and shifts of human controllers at each, it has to be admitted that a power outage at each facility might be an unlikely scenario, but a lockdown due to coronavirus or some other epidemic may not be so improbable.

Would it be possible to replicate a shore control centre using just smart phones and laptops so that controllers could continue to operate under a lockdown? The answer is probably yes but with provisos, instant switching between human observers might be more difficult depending upon local internet connections.

The announcement of city lockdowns to control coronavirus possibly overshadowed another news story this week when it was revealed that globally more than a billion Android devices are at risk of being hacked because they are no longer protected by security updates.

According to the UK media organisation BBC reporting on a survey, the vulnerability could leave users around the world exposed to the danger of data theft, ransom demands and other malware attacks and anyone using an Android phone released in 2012 or earlier should be especially concerned.

Google's data suggests that 42.1% of Android users worldwide are on version 6.0 of its operating system or below and according to the Android security bulletin, there were no security patches issued for the Android system in 2019 for versions below 7.0.

If an autonomous fleet was being controlled by human operators under such compromised situations, would it actually be possible to safely operate the ships involved? More to the point could they still be properly monitored and prevented from becoming a hazard to other vessels? Defaulting to a fail-safe mode might be a possibility but what if the ship were in a heavy traffic area of controlled zone at the time? Stopping suddenly in the middle of a traffic separation zone would be less than ideal for the ship concerned and others around it.

Maybe these are issues that technology could solve over time but what is possible is not always desirable or even beneficial to shipowners or cargo interests alike.

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