Revolutionary technology arriving


The two little letters “AI” represent a technology that is set to revolutionize virtually every sphere of our daily lives. Artificial Intelligence, whereby computers not only are programmed to respond to a wide range of circumstances but also learn how to cope with each new incident encountered, is already a reality. Last month the first commercial maritime cargo was shipped between the UK and Belgium in a vessel without any crew. It may have only been a five-kilogram box of British oysters, but the12-meter vessel maneuvered them safely across the English Channel, through one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

The team that developed this crewless boat are predicting that fully autonomous cargo ships will be in operation by 2025. There will still be land-based “crew” monitoring the vessels, sometimes from the other side of the world. But to all intents and purposes these craft will be unmanned. Given that crew cost is a major expense, especially when a ship has to moor idly, waiting to pick up a cargo, the savings are obvious. Moreover, without the need to build accommodation for humans, shipyards can turn out these vessels far more cheaply. Though the sophisticated technology required to run them with all the necessary fail-safe and back-up systems will be expensive, the outlay will quickly be defrayed by the other operating economies.

But over and above a complete systems failure, there are other obvious dangers to autonomous ships. At present, certain sea areas are still rife with pirates, as ten Turkish sailors discovered to their cost this week when they were abducted in the Gulf of Guinea by an armed Nigerian gang, who first disabled the cargo ship’s electrical system. It would seem impossible to design a ship that was totally secure, since at the very least there would have to be a way, including perhaps a helicopter pad, to allow a ship’s operator to get aboard in the event of an emergency. And then of course there is the certainty that as soon as autonomous ships begin operating, hackers will seek to break into their communications and take them over. Operating from a hidden den thousands of miles away, what neater trick could there be than to grab control of a cargo worth hundreds of millions of dollars, make the ship invisible to watching satellites and sail it to a friendly port?

Every new technological innovation has its downside. High-value electronically-opened cars are regularly stolen by thieves who use handheld devices to crack the entry codes. Voice-activated devices can be opened by villains playing real or artificially-created recordings of the authorized owner. Even fingerprint and iris recognition systems have been hacked by specialists at geeky computer fests.

But the impetus for AI and the technology surrounding it would appear to be unstoppable. Automated drones and cabs are already being launched. And in Japan, autonomous driving is being embraced enthusiastically by the country’s automakers. The reason - that Japan is on track to have the world’s largest population of old people - may be prosaic, but the results of the research into which billions are being poured is likely to be extraordinary. It is probably a bland assumption that humans will always be smarter than the complex computer system they create. After all, this week a computer-driven device solved a Rubik’s Cube in just a single second.