October 5, 2015

Automated ship nightmare

WHEN I WAS A TEENAGER I used to dream of becoming ship’s captain. Actually, to tell the truth, I mostly dreamed about girls, but every now and then the ship captain dream broke through. I wanted to go to a maritime academy to learn how to steer and navigate and bark orders that made seamen run around like ants, but I was never encouraged or sponsored, so I just drifted through my teenage years in the usual casual manner, not knowing where I was going and not caring about how I was going to get there. In any case, I wouldn’t encourage any teenagers to take up professional seafaring these days.

That thought came to me after I watched a TV news piece about self-driving cars. Several high-tech companies and practically all the auto makers are working on producing cars that drive and think for themselves. They’re already on our roads all over the country, and proving to be far better drivers than human beings. So far, I’ve only heard of cars driving themselves, but I don’t doubt that 18-wheelers will soon be doing it also, gawd help us.

And so, how close is the day when boats and ships of all sizes will drive themselves and put ship’s captains out of business? There have been experiments already, of course, and it would appear that sending a vessel across the ocean is comparatively easy, compared with the task of guiding a car safely on a road among hundreds of dumb and unpredictable human drivers.

The thought of oceans filled with unflinching steel freighters makes me very uneasy, though. The risk of collision with small yachts is bad enough already, but how will robotic ships avoid us?  Furthermore, will they feel it their bounden duty to rescue us when we’re in distress? Will they deploy their little lifeboats and come and get us?  And then, who will feed us when they take us aboard?  Will there be any food on board at all, as a matter of fact?  Artificial intelligence doesn’t need milk and cookies.

Navigation aids such as radar and, especially, AIS, may help to avoid collisions in some places, but congested areas near shore and ports will present their own problems. Those of us who wish to sail for pleasure may find our movements greatly restricted and controlled, but I hope the future will not turn out to be as bleak as it’s looking right now. Meanwhile, I’m glad I’m no longer a teenager with dreams of becoming a ship’s captain. I guess I’ll have to go back to dreaming of girls, much good may it do me.

Today’s Thought                                                               
We do not wish to be better than we are, but more fully what we are.
— V. S. Prichett, The Living Novel and Later Associations

“What jobs are hippies best fit for?”
“Holding on your leggies.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Unknown said...

Well if we end up with automated ships, will they automatic weapons to repel the Pirates? Insurance already keeps shipping from having weapons to defend themselves.

The crowed ports and waterways could be handled by allowing a captain to board to handle the close in maneuvering.

Boats in distress is another question though.

Wade in NW Florida

Ian and Sue said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
John Vigor said...

Ian and Sue:

I have deleted your most interesting comment from this blog and have purloined it for my next blog. I decided it needed more exposure. Thanks for writing my column for me.


John V.

Eric said...

Commercial aircraft have been flying this way for years, come to think of it, most people seem to use autopilot on both planes and boats, of course there is someone on watch.(?) Yes, someone actually lands the plane, and brings the ship into port, but most of the time, it's hands off.
I'm not sure these self operating cars, trucks, and buses didn't learn most of what they are doing from ships at sea, I won't even mention trains, which it seems impossible to me to screw up without a complete idiot at the controls.
Okay, now I'm curious about the post from Ian and Sue.