Man or Machine


Published Mar 6, 2018 3:45 PM by Transas

Having explored the changes necessary to take the shipping industry into the digital age at the enterprise level and the potential of technology to maximize the benefits, we come to third leg of the stool: it is the humans in the loop that glue everything today.

Without engaged personnel to execute and fulfill its objectives, a new business model is no more than just that: a theoretical model. Without competent personnel to operate and run it, new technology is no more than a heap of inanimate hardware and inert software.

However, the essential human component is often undervalued, even though it is the workers on the frontline who take the blame when something goes wrong. Crew are regularly accused of causing 90 per cent of incidents; masters are criminalized if lives are lost or the seas are polluted; vessel traffic controllers are castigated following a near-miss.

Certainly, human culpability is a factor, but often the root causes are systemic in nature. They result from poorly thought-out procedures or company policies that encourage certain behaviors, or from poorly designed equipment or user interfaces that distract the operator from what they should really be paying attention to.

While formulating policies that don’t have unintended consequences or designing user-interfaces that don’t overwhelm users is never easy, the impact of getting it wrong is serious. The complexity of ECDIS, for example, can make navigation less safe. If operators don’t understand – deeply understand – what they are looking at on the screen or why they are doing what they are doing, then it is no wonder that incidents occur. Meanwhile, the ubiquity of GPS has cultivated a reliance and trust in what technology is telling us that may itself be unsafe.

Part of the problem is the industry’s polarized attitude to training. There’s a vast gulf between those who take training seriously and those who don’t. This seems remarkable, given the industry’s exposure to the elements and its criticality to global supply chains. Such a lottery wouldn’t be acceptable in any other industry.

Transas therefore believes it can make a real difference by offering high quality and effective training. With THESIS, we offer stakeholders the opportunity to overcome the disconnect between training and real-world experience. The materials and exercises in ordinary training courses are often divorced or present a sanitized version of reality to trainees. Sharing data with training providers on actual vessel operations will pave the way for instruction that better reflects what really happens at sea, and in this way contribute to improved competency at sea.

The third session of the Transas Global Conference 2018 will see keynotes given by Harry Nelson, director of CL Max Consulting Ltd and Rama Myers, VP of Aviation at Seeing Machines. They will be joined in what’s sure to be a thought-provoking panel debate by Brian Luke, president of Bluewater Crew Training and Christian Hempstead, founder of Hempstead Maritime Training.

The apparent fervor for fully unmanned vessels displayed by the maritime industry is evidence of a mindset that sees employees – the human element – as an encumbrance and cost, which should be banished whenever the opportunity arises. However, let’s be realistic: the complete elimination of crew from oceangoing ships is a wishful fantasy, as such major vessel operators as Maersk and Anglo-Eastern have already pointed out.

Automation will no doubt offer scope for job consolidation; but the jobs that disappear will be the most monotonous, least rewarding ones that require little in the way of skill. On the other hand, the roles that remain will evolve: they will become more varied, require a greater breadth and depth of competence and, likely, carry greater responsibility.

Transas believes that there will be a continued requirement for a "human-in-the-loop." In fact, the innate decision-making and problem-solving capabilities of highly-trained, competent maritime professionals will complement and amplify the benefits conferred by advances in computer coding. But to allow this collaboration between man and machine, these individuals must be supported.

For more information on the Transas Global Conference, please visit http://www.transasglobalconference.com/2018/.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.