Dennis Bryant’s excellent article “Artificial Stupidity” certainly sets off the alarm-clock when it comes to that sleeping elephant in the room: un-manned merchant vessels. In today’s seas of technology, also designed to swamp you with hype, he states what’s in the back of everyone’s mind: “……when will the first unmanned cargo ship spectacularly fail?”
Artist’s impressions of sleek, swift, bridge-less ships slicing through all manner of weather are powerful images. In virtual-reality monitoring centers ashore, the usual is seen; impossibly good-looking crew surrounded by heads-up displays, with every twitch of a finger fine-tuning the efficient delivery of globe-trotting freight. Not so fast………..
Yes indeed, the progress is truly amazing, the concepts within the systems unheard-of, although the idea of sentient machines has been with us for many years. What’s the catch? Let’s consult the pantheon of sci-fi short stories out there – there must be something we can seize on to illustrate a point.
Back when rocket-ships had chrome-plated nosecones and fins, and they were flying us off to Mars every month, there wrote an author by the name of Fritz Leiber. Leiber elaborated on the chess-playing machine, aka “The Turk”, built by Baron von Kempelen in the 1700s, later taken on tour by Johann Maelzel in the 19th century. This marvelous machine was famously exposed as having a man inside by none other than Edgar Allan Poe. Now, one of Leiber’s artificial intelligence stories was “Appointment In Tomorrow”, in which a massive supercomputer named Maizie answers questions fed to it from the world’s intelligentsia. Inside the huge metallic casing, unknown to all except a select few, reading the questions, “…a suave fat man in shorts sat drinking beer.”
Where was I? Right; shipping. We will see a lot of promotion and presentations; a great deal of which, when it comes to levels of artificial intelligence, will be actual fact. However, until we humans are fully satisfied with their seemingly sentient operation, somewhere there will still be people inside the machine, trouble-shooting, de-bugging and smoothing over the gaps in its…..um….intelligence. There will be failures, both human and non-human. Still, shipping classification societies and insurers will be extremely cautious approving autonomous control, while in the midst of debates over catastrophic wreck and salvage costs. Even after all that, as with Maelzel’s chess-playing automaton, we may still have a hand in the machine. As Maizie the supercomputer - sorry; the “suave fat man in shorts” - was asked in Fritz Leiber’s story, “Does Maizie stand for Maelzel?”