Thursday, 22 September 2016

What autonomous ships are really about

It is easy for technical people (and others) to take technical ideas at face value. These days, this is often a serious mistake. In his brilliant monograph 'The Epic Struggle for the Internet of Things', reviewed here, Bruce Sterling puts us right. Google spent billions buying Nest, not for its thermostat technology, but to stake a claim in home automation.A technical device can be used to support a narrative for the future. So it is with autonomous ships.
First a small paleofuture exercise. Go back five or six years. What was 'the future of shipping' then? Perhaps, how big container ships might get, what alternative fuels might we be using. Look at the ships in this piece by Wärtsilä  from 2010 about shipping in 2030. Those ships have bridges and people. No mention of autonomous ships by anybody, probably.
Now, to the present. Go to any shipping event and ask about 'the future of shipping'. Autonomous ships will be mentioned within the first three sentences, and Rolls-Royce will be named. Rolls-Royce has put itself at the centre of the dominant narrative for the whole industry. This positioning is worth a fortune, and RR has done it at almost zero cost. A contribution to an EU research project or two, some press releases, some snazzy graphics from Ålesund - pennies. The autonomous ship has been the device used to stake that claim. Please don't mistake it for a technical exercise.