When digital lets us down

31 May 2018
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We could ask ourselves how we got so far without digital, how we navigated before AIS, mobile connectivity and gadgets. The latest shiny things fill the vacuum where other pursuits once played and ran wild.

Future generations may surface on this mortal coil with apps primed within. Cut to the chase, and be born with a sim or SD card; choose character, common sense or operational dexterity. Evolution might throw in a USB port for good measure. Parents, teachers or employers simply select a menu screen for preferred attributes, values, conduct …oh, and skills too.

Skills, remember those…? Wasn’t it great when we had to actually do stuff rather than woo Alexa, Siri or some other smart AI demi-god; our dependence on digital a swipe away from devotion.

Along with everyone else, I have obviously benefited from technical and digital revolutions. Innovation drives progress and industry. The escalation of human development shows no sign of slowing through this digital epoch, with maritime now at the cusp of mainstreaming change.

But what happens when digital lets us down? What do sailors reach for when all is lost? When there is no satellite cover, AIS or phone signal your small screen of choice might as well be a black hole.

Every fleet is faced with a balance of power – propulsion, ancillary, navigation and connectivity. A greater autonomy and over-reliance on systems, or retaining crew skills and capabilities presents a clear conundrum for ship-owners.

Whether vessels are destined to become crewless or crew-light, we must keep and hone traditional seafaring skills. The phone isn’t the smartest tool in the box. Whilst we probably don’t need to cast a knotted rope overboard to calculate speed, basic navigation is critical when a cyberattack takes out a satellite …or the bridge.

A system reboot – if that option remains – may light up screens like a Christmas tree, but they now show a different course than you last recall and you’re nine nautical miles off. You resurrect the smartphone, but Siri doesn’t give a damn. And Alexa – she’s back home and up to mischief with your autonomous vacuum. At least, the cat used to have a tail…

Best you reach for the sextant, protractor and dividers, and dig through the chart drawer. Send the Bosun up top to track the sun, or the stars. Back in the day… I know. The wisecracks echo around the galley ahead of any mayday. But the day may well return when the bottom line isn’t reliant on digital tech.

We have seen malicious hacking, from baby monitors – viewed online by thousands of people in dozens of countries – to the UK’s National Health Service, crippling services and appointments. A year ago, Maersk had to ‘reinstall an entire infrastructure’ – more than 4,000 servers, some 45,000 PCs and 2,500 applications – in the days following a cyberattack.

It needn’t be malicious. I’m not alone in scheduling a Windows upgrade, only to find the desktop still thinking about it the next morning. Accepting a software download can suspend multiple operations.

Automation advances, but somewhere it requires eyes-on and a mouse to be clicked. Or not clicked.

A malware system-crash might harvest data; your cargo manifest poached by a rouge state or trader. Or a bunker-transfer automation resembles a magic pipe, when hacked by a small vessel floating alongside. That’s the least of worries for a watchkeeper when the lights go out and the purr of the ancillary generator becomes a rattle and hum before dying altogether.

Come back Facebook, all is forgiven. A volt of juice through the phone and there’s at least that platform for a distress signal.

Autonomous shipping – or now semi-autonomous for the smart money – will have to take account of all system failures with extensive risk assessment; war-gaming every scenario through design and build, followed by rigorous drilling for the skeleton crews who remain.

In the mix of advancement and future-proofing, we must discern between operational connectivity and necessary visibility; data-capture makes economic and engineering sense. But when your head wasn’t in the cloud you would lock the filing cabinet…

Should we be careful what we wish for? We may again long for analogue, or the sound of human error – red-carded with an earful from the master and despatched to quarters.

We may need to turn back a page to where the wild things were, and not singularly rely on where the shiny things are headed.


Jonathan Spencer

Crisis Response Manager

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