futurenautics – part of the ship, part of the crew. the rise of the shipping cyborg

Since the launch of the first issue of Futurenautics late last month, one subject in particular has grabbed attention—the Cyborg Crew. It is tempting—and understandable—to assume we’re talking about turning your deck officers into something out of a Star Trek movie. What we’re really trying to encompass is the huge changes in shipping which the increasing—and seemingly inexorable—integration of man and machine will bring about.

The reality is that cyborgs already exist in considerable numbers—they include anyone who has a pacemaker fitted or has a hearing implant. Using technology to restore normal human function has long been an accepted area of scientific and technological development. But an area of increasing attention is on using technology to maintain and improve human health and well-being, which could have hugely positive benefits for seafarers working in harsh and dangerous conditions, with medical intervention many miles away.

Advances in microelectronics, personalised medicine and connectivity have ushered in a new era of self-monitoring products. Already these have demonstrated significant and measurable increases in health, welfare and productivity for individuals and employees in other industries. Right now it’s possible to download an iPad app which will measure pulse and blood pressure and even body mass index, simply by a user looking at the screen. Other items of wearable tech which are already widely available include sensors which track the number of steps taken, the energy and effort expended and even the amount and quality of sleep an individual gets.

For the shipping industry,  currently implementing the MLC (Maritime Labour Convention), which mandates a certain number of rest hours for crew, such intelligent and comparatively inexpensive monitoring tools could revolutionise the ease and the quality of compliance. More than that, it opens up the possibilities of managing the health of seafarers in a way that has never before been possible.

Although some may consider them controversial, ingestible sensors such as those from Proteus Digital Health are tiny enough to be swallowed and can feed back data on a range of parameters for medical staff to review and monitor on an ongoing basis. The EPFL (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne) recently developed what amounts to a tiny laboratory which is implanted under the skin and can perform tests ranging from measuring the concentration of essential substances in the body to the presence of drugs and alcohol. These results can then be wirelessly transmitted to medical practitioners, or perhaps the Master, or the manning agent to confirm the health and fitness to work of seafarers.

Your reaction to these advances will most likely depend upon your age. Whereas those of the older generation immediately foresee issues of privacy and corporate interference, the younger, or Millennial generation, of whom the latest intake of seafarers are comprised, take a markedly different view. According to one report almost 56% of Millennials already practise some form of self-monitoring and most have no problem at all with exchanging data for some form of benefit – in this case being safer at sea.

But wearable tech isn’t just about health and welfare. The world’s first wearable computer, Google Glass will go on general sale early in 2014 at the latest, and a brief look at its capabilities makes clear the applications for maritime use. As the e-nautic agenda gathers pace and ECDIS is mandated onboard more vessels, the challenges for navigation and other officers of maintaining situational awareness whilst assimilating digital data are intensifying. Technology such as Google Glass combined with ECDIS and other inputs would allow digital overlays on bridge windows, and in conjunction with technology like Ubi Interactive, could converge to provide touch screens on bulkheads, the bridge windows themselves or even engine control rooms.

But where we’re heading is more than just checking that we’re firing on all cylinders. The next step is the ‘augmented self’, where we use technology to enhance and improve what humans are capable of doing. It is in this realm that we really begin to move towards ‘The Borg’ or ‘Terminators’. Brain Computer Interfaces (BCI) are going to form the basis of products which allow muscle impulse and even thought-control of machines. Although this may sound like science-fiction a team at Brown University in the USA has already developed a wireless BCI which has been working perfectly implanted in animals for the past thirteen months. The emergence of this technology promises a whole new way of designing ships and their systems, where seafarers become more host than operator.

Combined with the increasing leveraging of M2M and learning algorithms to produce the raw materials for Shipistics (shipping’s big data future which I’ll elaborate upon next month), and the move to social technologies to operate and manage shipping functions, we’ll be seeing a new kind of organisation, where the human is just one constituent part. Known as Social Cyborgs they will be technology-driven and reflect the values and expectations of a new ‘Millennial’ generation.

Of course to get from here to those Shipping Social Cyborgs, there are one or two things which are absolutely essential: one of them is the wholesale adoption of the enhanced and fast connectivity which the new generation of high-throughput satellites are about to offer shipping. The other is to fully embrace and leverage the cloud applications which are invariably the backbone of these new monitoring products, wearable tech and—crucially—flexible, cost effective and scalable corporate network infrastructure.

If we can get this right then the health and welfare of our 1.2 million seafarers could be radically transformed. But in the meantime I leave you with this thought: it might be 2020, 2030 or 2040, but surely the inevitable conclusion we’re going to come to is that the safest and most risk-free place for the human part of this shipping social cyborg is no longer at sea. Or do you see it differently?


image © bartuchna - Fotolia.com

Roger Adamson

I'm a former Inmarsat executive, and since 2008 I've been CEO of Stark Moore Macmillan, which produces a variety of market research on the maritime market by providing due diligence and working at a strategic level with a wide range of global clients. In 2013 our research and modelling activities led to the launch of Futurenautics, a quarterly journal and web resource investigating maritime’s technology-enabled future.