COLUMN | Why humans may still be useful [Grey Power]

An operator remotely monitoring the progress of an autonomous tug navigating through the Port of Geoje in South Korea (Photo: Samsung Heavy Industries)

We used to talk about the “human element” in the context of it having become something of an afterthought, as technology advanced, and the need to bear the seafarers in mind, as the regulations were rolled out. To some of us, it all seemed rather wishful thinking: smelling of PR roses, as the reality of smaller crews doing more work tended to overshadow more noble and publicly voiced aspirations.

The latest buzzword is “humancentric” to describe a number of initiatives that seem designed to make the maritime world a warmer and more welcoming place, as it adjusts to the latest challenges of sustainability, diversity, digitisation, and other fashionable nostrums. The word leaped out at me when reading about “Seafarer 2050,” which is a summit bringing seafarers and employers’ organisations, along with all sorts of high-level agencies, that will be held around the annual international “Day of the Seafarer”, in the Philippine capital of Manila later this month.

Representatives of the employers’ organisation the International Maritime Employers’ Council (IMEC), the shipowners’ body the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) will be the principal actors in the exercise, the object of which is advertised as “shaping the future of an industry that ensures seafarers remain at its heart”.

“Do we think that the purpose of the humans on board will be largely to serve as a sort of last-resort interventionist if all the technology has gone pear-shaped?”

It is no bad thing to be looking ahead, although the direction of travel in this industry, as in any other, is far from certain. The industry seems to believe that somewhere in the region of 90,000 additional sea staff will be required by the middle of this century, although this will be making some very bold assumptions on the expansion of international trade and the general attitudes of climate catastrophism being inculcated in younger generations.

And even if sea trade does continue along its anticipated trajectory, it is far from certain that the sort of skills required to run the ships of 2050 will be recognisable to seafarers to today. Their roles may, as is suggested by the participants of this summit in Manila, be transformed, and in more ways than the need to grapple with “green energy” challenges.

You can already see the way in which the debate is progressing, with technology available to remotely monitor the condition of the ship’s machinery, its performance, and its position on the surface of the ocean from ashore, while providing advice, if not instruction, to those aboard. You might suggest the effect of these advances on contemporary seafarers is yet to be properly studied as regards their attitudes, enjoyment of their jobs, and, perhaps importantly, their ability to make vital decisions involving the safety of the ship, those aboard, and the environment.

Do we think that the purpose of the humans on board ship will be largely to serve as a sort of last-resort interventionist if all the shore-controlled technology has gone pear-shaped? I was reading a triumphant description of the UK’s first autonomous bus, which has gone into service along a section of the motorway running over the Forth Road bridge. Along with the delighted passengers, the bus will carry a crewmember who is not designated as the driver, but somebody who is tasked with leaping into action if some hazard manifests itself. Quite how this is financially justified is anyone’s guess, with a staff member who appears to be aboard mainly to make cheerful jokes to maintain morale among nervous shoppers.

“We are still just talking about the changes that will be needed while the shipboard environment is being changed around the seafarers, who, as in the past, will be expected to just adapt.”

It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the bean counters are already planning to make the “busmaster” redundant, if the technologists approve. I don’t suppose anyone thought about this, but being classed as an emergency device might be far more tedious than being a proper old-fashioned driver, with a sense of some achievement at the end of the day. But maybe the need to be humancentric has not found its way to Scotland. And while this example may not immediately lend itself to the maritime world, it might make influencers on all sides of the industry pause briefly before rushing headlong towards autonomy, to the beguiling choruses of the technologists.

We are still just talking about the training and educational changes that will be needed while the shipboard environment is being changed around the seafarers, who, as in the past, will be expected to just adapt. And it is not just something that can be safely entrusted to cautious regulators, or clever digital experts, as experience is not encouraging. I always remember at the industry’s precipitate but joyful disposal of the radio officer, when a technical alternative emerged, at precisely the time that the average ship could have done with somebody who knew something about the electronics that were crowding on board.

Nobody asked the shipmasters who lost their confidants and assistants, and found that they had become O/C communications in addition to everything else they were expected to handle as crews shrank. When there is even a sniff of savings, any humancentricity was quickly dismissed and I doubt that things have really changed over the years.

But it is useful that there is to be this exchange at the highest possible levels about these matters, with the various representative bodies, who learned to be more consensual during the pandemic, hopefully planning some sort of strategy for the future. Let us hope that the Manila Summit reaches a peak of achievement and we wish the best of luck to its summiteers.

Michael Grey

Maritime industry legend, and former long-term editor of Lloyds List, Michael Grey kicks off each month with topical issues affecting the maritime world at large.