Tallinn University of Technology

Due to digitalisation, twenty-first century maritime transport is facing new challenges alongside great opportunities. There is talk of the fourth or even the fifth industrial (or rather technological) revolution, but there is no single answer to the question of when ‘smart ships’ will become reality. Why?

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Photo: Pixabay

By Anatoli Alop, Associate Professor, Estonian Maritime Academy, Tallinn University of Technology, PhD

In recent years, a number of prominent companies have declared that they are seriously committed to the development of so-called intelligent ships – the creation of remotely operated and fully autonomous (unmanned) vessels. The first of these ships are already sailing the seas – not very far and usually along precisely designated shipping routes, but the precedent has been set. The concept of the so-called smart port has also been introduced, which means the maximum automation of port processes and the application of new intelligent technologies to the handling of goods, passengers, and ships in the port.

Plenty of important questions that still lack answers

Thanks to information technology, the global interconnection of transport systems is therefore a more realistic possibility than ever. The term ‘artificial intelligence’ is used to refer to the control systems of such networks. These systems can have a very large number of components located anywhere in the world, acting simultaneously as a single entity and performing shared tasks.

At first glance, ‘smart shipping’ seems like a really impressive breakthrough. Smart computers in ports constantly process information from other ports, ships, weather services, shippers of goods, and other sources, and smart ships adjust their behaviour accordingly without human intervention. Currently, ships often sail at full speed to reach the port before other ships or at the contractually agreed arrival time, burning large quantities of fuel and polluting the environment. Ultimately, however, they may still be late or the port may become congested, forcing them to wait at anchor, once again burning fuel and polluting the environment, wasting time and resources for nothing. Smart shipping would allow for the full implementation of the just-in-time principle, which currently does not seem to work very well in the maritime sector. There are other positive factors, but also a number of difficulties and potential threats that can make the successful operation of such smart systems difficult or even unrealistic.

Actually, however, making ships and ports increasingly autonomous and smart is not the main challenge today. A closer look reveals entirely different obstacles that could pose a threat. While it is clear that systems with this level of complexity are even more technically vulnerable than the average, the problems of human-machine interaction are also complex. For example, as ships and ports become ever ‘smarter’ and require less and less human intervention, who will ultimately be responsible for anything that might happen in the future at sea or in port? What about the carrier’s liability if there is no one on board for the entire journey? How can we ensure cyber security? How can we be protected against the systemic failures of artificial intelligence? It is possible that only new non-trivial approaches can lead to satisfactory results in this area, but what they might be and whether these approaches are possible at all is still unclear.

Efficiency must not be the first priority

It is important to remember that errors are inevitable in complex systems. The principle of duplication, which we know from the theory of automated systems, only works up to a certain level of complexity: at some point, the duplication system becomes as complex as the basic system or even more so, and requires duplication, in turn. And so on. On the other hand, as the system becomes more efficient, it also becomes more vulnerable; even a small internal fault or external effect can sink the whole system due to the avalanche effect. This means that the system must, at the same time, remain sufficiently robust, but here, a contradiction arises that is very difficult, if not impossible, to overcome: efficiency and robustness develop in opposite directions. The more efficient the system, the less robust it can be, and vice versa.

It is dangerous to put efficiency first, deem it almost the only thing of value, because it always comes at the expense of robustness. If a relatively small, persistent disturbance occurs in a maximally efficient system that cannot be responded to in time, the whole system will move towards the increase of this disturbance. Examples include hacker intrusions and the lack of timely response, mitigation, and elimination. The disturbances/imbalances grow exponentially and the global system may lose control as a whole. Therefore, the price of maximum efficiency of a global system may be its global collapse.

When it comes to smart shipping, the most vulnerable vessels are those at sea: above all the fully autonomous vessels, but also, to a large extent, the remote-controlled ones. In a critical situation, they are very likely to lose communication. One of the ways to avoid, even partially, the events described or at least to mitigate the catastrophic consequences thereof is ensuring the relative autonomy of the ships’ own power sources and the maximum protection of computer systems, as well as the autonomous ability to successfully carry out local navigation and other tasks if all communication and information exchange with the command levels is lost.

Human nature must not be forgotten!

However, as the idea of smart shipping is global in nature and shipping is an integral part of the world economy, we cannot ignore the economic paradigms and operating principles of today’s society as well as human nature. Trying to reconcile the two, I have to admit in advance that it does not work very well. The following is a somewhat simplified approach, but should still adequately reflect the nature of the problem.

Almost 250 years ago, the Scottish scientist Adam Smith came up with his economic theory, the postulates stated in which are in fact the foundations of modern liberal economy. Smith believed that all productive work is the source of wealth, but also that human greed is a good and driving force. ‘Money must make money’, and in order not to collapse, the market economy must continue to grow and be based on competition between market players. When discussing the likelihood of a global system of smart shipping, the key word here is ‘cooperation’ rather than ‘competition’, which, in turn, means that those involved in the system should not only look at things from the point of view of making a personal profit, but should also be prepared to give some of it up, albeit perhaps for the sake of more distant but nevertheless the only correct goals. This, however, requires a broader outlook, the ability to think strategically, not just building your own business plans, and a change in certain human traits. That last one does not seem very realistic.

So it is by no means certain that operators (ship owners, port owners, sellers and buyers of goods) are ready to join smart shipping systems all at once. There are, of course, some very innovative entrepreneurs, but most of them tend to be conservative. In his articles, British economist Martin Stopford has given examples of how long it has taken to bring about revolutionary changes in shipping over the past centuries – for example, the total shift from sailing to steamships in maritime freight transport took over a hundred years and the final conquest of the world by containers over fifty! And it was not because entrepreneurs failed to understand the benefits of innovation, but rather that revolutionary changes required a radical reorganisation of the entire shipping industry. For innovations to work effectively, more or less everyone in the industry should go along with them. So what is there to say about smart shipping? In this case, the changes needed will have to be even more drastic and far-reaching. I dare to doubt that a quick and painless transition is possible.

The world needs to change first

Over the past few decades, many researchers have concluded that the current economic model is unsustainable, mainly because of its inexorably wasteful nature and destructive impact on the environment. While the world understands the challenges, the current economic system remains unaffected on a global scale. The reason is that economy is not so much the result of models developed in the offices of scientists, but of the thoughts of each individual – the collective consciousness. Shipping as an industry is no exception.

The sad fact is that if smart shipping were applied to the existing economic system, it would amplify more of the bad than the good. This means that smart ships will carry more and more goods with ever greater efficiency and at a lower cost, including, to a large extent, to the final destination point of the landfill.

Therefore: maybe the optimal goal would be to reduce transport volumes while making them more efficient, ideally to the point where nothing is lost and everything gets to the right place at the right time? For the first time in human history, thanks to technological advances, this is at least theoretically possible. If the AI that runs the smart shipping industry can get additional information from wholesale and retail outlets, government agencies, etc., all the way to the end consumer’s home (the Internet of Things), it will also be able to calculate at any moment which goods and in what volumes should go where. This is, of course, an idealistic picture, and requires a change in all basic paradigms, the most difficult of which is the adoption of radically different principles and beliefs and convictions – not only by businesses, but also by the whole of consumer society. However, they are unfortunately (still) hard to believe in today.