The dehumanizing process: "There used to be people …"
When the wheel was invented, (over 3500 years BC according to archeological records) , it undoubtedly changed the way humans used to move big, heavy stuff.
Surely, the new invention also reduced the amount of time and hands (manpower) previously required to perform such a task. Now those idling "extra hands" could dedicate the "extra time" that was made available, to take care of other issues important for the community.
The wheel was such an incredible invention, a masterpiece of human wit, that has survived up until the present, almost unchanged. We normally take from granted the fact that the tires of our vehicles are just the evolved version of those prehistoric wheels.
Technological advance has always been the motor behind the modernization of civilization. We don't need to time travel back in order to recall the turning points in history caused by the creation of new technology. In retrospective, it isn't hard to see how technology has been motivated by the pursuit of power, domination and greed. Some of the greatest technological achievements have taken place before, during, and shortly after a war. Not always, of course, but must of the time.
Author Laleh Khalili in his "Sinews of War and Trade" wittily explains how the shift from sail powered to steam powered ships facilitated the swift conquest of resources overseas by the Europeans. Notice that trade and war can go hand in hand in many ways, and the success in both are highly defined by technological innovation.
But let's leave history for a moment and focus on what is happening in the present. Specifically in the maritime field, in which technological innovation is moving at an even faster pace than it can be assimilated or implemented aboard, with the "sole" purpose of making the shipping industry more efficient, safe, and above anything, as PROFITABLE as it could be. But just because increasing stockholders' profit is the ultimate reason for all the technological innovation, it does not mean that it has always been harmful for the rest of us. We all know that.
When I started as a Panama Canal Pilot, over 25 years ago, the only piece of technology that I had to carry with me aboard was the "transit radio". The best way to keep track of ships that were not in sight was by calling other pilots and trust their judgement, or by requesting the canal traffic controllers that they'd take a look at their cctv cameras. If it was raining or fog had settled on the water, there wasn't much that the controllers could do for us. Pilots simply had to pull out all their skills to make transits safe.
Transiting the Panama Canal was a tedious task which, besides navigating its narrow channels and manoeuvring through its locks, required pilots to monitor the radio in order not to miss relevant information, which sometimes got mingled and was confusing, or would end up completely lost behind other transmissions. On a busy day the canal main frequencies were normally saturated and pilots had to use extreme cautious.
To complicate things even more, the adherence of China into world commerce, by the end of the 90's, resulted in a significant increase in traffic through the Panama Canal. The east coast of the United States of America became hungry for all the manufactured products shipped from Chinese ports. "Made in China" quickly replaced the "Made in America" tags. I used the word "complicate" with no intention of disregarding that with China officially entering World commerce, canal earnings went up.
The increase in traffic impacted the workload of the almost 300 canal pilots in charge of the nearly 34 thousand transits each year. We were busier, and worked more often.
In view of the situation, the Panama Canal, which during those days was being administered by a bilateral entity (USA/Panama), acquired from the Volpe center the CTAN system.
( Communications, Traffic Management and Navigation). The CTAN was especially tailored to enhance the safety and efficiency of the Panama Canal. It provided a real time display of the location of every ship that was in canal waters.
The CTAN took us into a whole new world in which information was made available at a bird's eye. Now, besides the radio, we carried a case with a laptop computer, a couple of antennas, and the cables to connect everything. But not all pilots were satisfied with the system. The most reluctant were the old timers. Some of them said that the CTAN had come to solve problems we did not have. However, as time went by, we all realized the benefits that this new piece of technology provided. After sometime we would complain if there were no CTAN units available.
That was technology serving us, serving world trade, serving humanity. Just like the wheel had done right at the beginning.
From the CTAN we went to the PPU ( Pilot Portable Unit) This was an extra technological leap. The laptop was replaced by a tablet, lighter, faster and user friendlier. For the new locks (2016) the Panama Canal developed the RTK (real time kinematics), a system able to detect small variations in ship's motion with an accuracy down to a couple of centimeters. And more importantly, the RTK gives us the advantage of making even better decisions and enabled us to make much better predictions. Like my partner, Captain Peter Podest, said to me " it is like having one crystal ball in which we can see the inmediate future".
All these technological gadgets are making the transit of mega ships through the canal a bit less complicated. Nonetheless, they also have their limitations, and are subject to fail, and as it is normally the case, at the most crucial moment. Here is where the often uninvited "what if" factor comes into play. The solution is a simplistic one; we still have to make use of our senses, our judgment, our "feel of the ship", and our most valuable asset: experience.
But the what if dilemma might be solved by even more technological innovation . Not so soon, I am sure, as I already explained it in the article "Autonomous vessels, AI, and the coffee making machine", which you can read here:
In the case of ship's bridges, technology has made its way in a variety of modes. Integrated navigation systems have evolved into Intelligence Awareness Systems, and there are also systems using Augmented Reality, claim to enhance even more awareness and decision making for the OOW. (Rolls Royce seems to be leading in this field)
They all offer a whole new range of possibilities, that in the mid term could make of the OOW an obsolete figure. Which will bring us to the next level :"autonomous vessels". All that remains to do is to integrate all other technological features, including self docking technology ( Wartsila's field) resulting in a completely unmanned ships not just an idea, but a reality, and not a virtual one.
The concept is already breaking in at IMO who seems to be already paving the path for it to happen. When? Well, not in the near future.
The question that arises here is: how much is enough? How much before crews become a thing of the past, a drawing on a children story book ( or perhaps a screen) of the future.
A youtube video depicts one of those systems, as if it was being used, to explain its workings. It amazes me that both the VTS and the Intelligence Awareness system are automated, giving the impression that there is no human intervention in either side. Or very little human intervention. The voice generated by the VTS reminds me of the robotic accent of Alexa from Amazon or Siri from Apple.
I remember when I was sailing in the Baltic and had to report to Tallinn radio on our way to Helsinki. If we were lucky, a girl would be at the radio. And her voice was like a soothing balsam reverberating through the coldness of the air inside the bridge. Even if I wasn't on watch, I would come up to the wheelhouse not to miss her voice. It was soothing, so far yet so warm as if it was right there next to us. Humans interacting.
I also remember how enjoyable it was for me to talk to Mr. Larsen, our agent in Helsingor. He would greet me with the biggest smile, especially when he had mail for me. There was something about waiting for those letters, a kind of sweet bitterness, something that emails took away from us. I have nothing against emails, to make it clear.
In fact, I am not against technological innovation, how could anyone be. You are reading this piece in a language, which is foreign to me, thanks to technology. But it appears to me that today's technology is beginning to turn against us. Or said in other words, we are creating technology, not to serve us, as the wheel did, but to compete against us, to replace us, and may the Universe or God forbid, to control us. And in this process we might be giving up our most precious gift: our own humanity.
To know that there is "someone" on the other side and not a bot, makes us feel and act human.
We are living times of physical distancing, times that will repeat themselves in the future, because viruses will always exist. Isn't that distancing already causing a significant reduction in human interactions?
We've lost the handshake of the ship's Captain at the beginning and end of the transit. Currently, we can't share a smile because our smiles are trapped behind a mask.
Why are we in such a hurry to dehumanize ships even more? Why does it look like the producers of technology want to wipe off most humans working in every field? What is it that workers are not doing, or doing wrong, that companies want to get rid of them? After all they have done for the companies?
The only answer I can come up with, again, is profit. But at what cost?
How much more, where, and what kind of technology does humanity need? How much Artificial Intelligence, Intelligence Awareness, and so on is actually required to increase safety?
Had the APL Eagle been a fully autonomous ship, would its containers have not fallen off to the ocean? Well, at least its Captain would not have been jailed. Or maybe if there had been more crew, instead of less, all the lashings could have been properly checked, by humans, with the aid of technology, of course.
In Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era, a book by James Barrat, we are warned of the dangers that all these futuristic approaches might pose for humanity. Artificial Intelligence, he claims, might be at the level of human intelligence, but it will never be "human like", and it can surpass our ability to keep it under control.
I am not so sure about it. I would like to think that there are some fundamental ethical principles behind the creation of this new kind of technology.
However, it seems inevitable that someday ships crossing the oceans will do it without crews. And there is the possibility, decades later, that those ships will also transit the Panama Canal without pilots. I hope that, at least. we will also be remembered in the same children's stories like in the case of the OOW, that I mentioned earlier. I picture a father standing somewhere high on the canal bank, pointing a finger to a ship passing through the Big Ditch, while telling his kid " there used to be people on those things, long, long time ago". People like us. Captains, sailors, Pilots. "Pilots? Like airplane piots? the kid would ask. "No, not those pilots. A different breed of individuals, one whose job was never fully understood but only by other pilots, and a handful of ship's Captains ( like my friend Capt Mikko) ". (the scene could be a depiction of anywhere where there was Pilotage)
It would be a sad picture if it becomes real, one I would neither want, nor will I be here to see.
It is sad because it will mean that we had let our inventions take the taste and color out of our lives. It would mean that we have lost control of that first wheel, the wheel of innovation, and it is now turning our way, rolling and rolling, as it gets bigger and bigger. So big that we cannot stop it any more. That same prehistoric wheel that was once a solution, an innovative machine to serve mankind, could now become a problem, could become our worst enemy.
There is hope: our brains remain the most fantastic "gadget" in the whole universe. All it takes is to put to work for the good of humanity. For the real well being of humanity. Not only for profit, profit … at any cost. Profit over people, just as in the title of Mr. Chomsky's book. Profit for some, with the claim of making shipping and the supply chain safer and more efficient.
We can"t stop the wheel, but we can aim to create technology without letting technology take control of everything and anything humans can still do well.