Maritime automation will not spare seafarers

Humans have a tenuous relationship with automation. On balance, we love it. It has made our lives easier. Freed up time for leisure. Freed up time for thinking … about more automation. Progressively, we have made automation cleverer. First, we armed it with simple decision trees, then with supervised reasoning, until we arrived at self-learning mathematical algorithms. Along the way, automation equipped with artificial intelligence allowed us to eliminate human efforts all around.

To put it in perspective, we started with replacing elevator operators with buttons and self-locking doors. We arrived at autonomous cars making better driving decisions than humans themselves. In the process, we also depopulated, among others, factory floors, bank branches, public services offices, and airport service areas.

Are you thinking that a more specialised human workforce is going to be immune? An artificial intelligence program developed in China combs through test results, health records and even handwritten notes, to consistently match or outperform primary care pediatricians. Welcome to the “depopulated” doctor’s office.

Industrial manufacturing led the way, deploying robotics and artificial intelligence on the factory floors to automate labour-intensive, repetitive processes and task processes, then moved on to back-office processes such as purchasing, invoicing, collections, and customer service. Predictive analytics were put to work to improve demand forecasting, increase asset utilisation, and more economically maintain diverse pieces of equipment. In all cases, AI-based technology showed itself to learn and improve in a way similar to humans, but with virtually unlimited capacity for processing and retaining data.

Transportation is not immune from the automation trend and displacement of humans with some form of automation, often augmented by artificial intelligence. Back offices of transportation companies came first. Contract optimisation took out contract administrators, pricing optimisation reduced the number of pricing analysts, allocation optimisation reduced the need for tradelane analysts, and talking bots displaced humans in customer service centers. Recent news of OpenAI writing convincing news stories (watch out, Splash!) and works of fiction is only a step away from digitising it into speech, thus opening the way to displace humans in already downscaled sales offices.

The front lines of transportation have not been immune from those changes, although here the causes were different. Trucking has been hit most severely, as numbers of retiring drivers far exceed numbers of new candidates to take their places. Added weight of regulations affecting drivers’ employment, like that seen in countries of European Union pushed many drivers back to their home countries, unintentionally triggering a driver supply crisis earlier than predicted.

Train drivers and train operations staff will follow. Rail operators are watching full train automation spearheaded by Rio Tinto, a mining company in Australia. Using driverless trains, robotic operators, cameras, lasers, and tracking sensors, the company is able to manage their mine-to-port supply chain remotely, while improving the overall safety of their rail operations. Their competitor, BHP Billiton is on the cusp of designing and enabling a fully automated mine. With humans taken out of the equation, the mine can be designed more efficiently, as human safety procedures are removed, and dangerous operations like blasting can continue without need to wait, while humans are being removed from the dangerzones.

Maritime not immune

However you look at automation, its introduction has always led to less need for human workers. Companies jumping on the full automation bandwagon claim that their displaced employees can be re-trained and reassigned to more attractive jobs overseeing the new technology. So far, not one of those companies managed to prove that point. They always end up with less employees in the end.

Maritime transportation is not immune from all those automation trends. On the terminal quays, gangs of 25 workers have been downsized to 8-10. In terminals where gang sizes are still about 15, you will see half of the gang workers milling about. On the ships, technology is reducing human activities from the engine room all the way up to the bridge. Yes, things are still breaking down and they call for a safe pair of human hands and human brainpower, but the overall need for the sizes of crews of old is diminishing. Larger ships don’t require larger crews and modern ships replacing older ships size for size allow for smaller crews. Ignore the hype of fully autonomous vessels cutting the need for human crews to zero. That’s a fantasy. The reality of the staffed ships of today tells a sufficiently worrying story for the future of human employment.

Thus, it is surprising to find a report taking a contrarian position. Researchers at the World Maritime University came to conclusions that are hard to believe. They reference studies showing that jobs lost due to automation were replaced by more jobs created in areas of increasing demand for the products manufactured by automated production lines, or to translate, for every one job lost on the production line, companies hired more than one person in sales and marketing.

They then neatly extrapolated this research into the world of maritime, or specifically into the seafaring workforce. Under all tested scenarios, their simulations showed only growth in the demand for seafarers between 2020 and 2040. Inexplicably, some of their scenarios showed that seafarers’ numbers will almost double from the approximately 1.6m employed today. These simulations didn’t concern themselves with any other factors other than automation. Believing this would require automation technology progress to stop at current levels and produce no new employment-reducing innovations for the next 20 years. Arrested human ingenuity does not feature in my thinking, does it feature in yours?

I am interested in hearing your thoughts on the subject of automation replacing maritime jobs. Can the maritime industry defy the trend of automation reducing need for human workers?

Kris Kosmala

Kris Kosmala is a partner at Click & Connect where he advises companies trying to leverage digitalization to change their business competitive position.


  1. The elevators dont take out humans from the equation at the beginning, because it includes the transport of humans. Not because people cant “press” the button, but on a reliability purpose. For ships, one day at Sines, seeing a pilot manouver in a 14000 TEU ship, when reach the bridge, only the captain there, and until ship touch the fenders, no one more was there. The Captain, the pilot, and myself on a 400 meters vessel.

    The human still have a role, coordinating all the system and checking safety and security, but with less protagonism each day. They still be part of the equation always.

    Just to refresh some minds about the autonomous ideas.

    Anyone find the MH370 already??? Almost 5 years have passed. Technology can help, but some black holes can still be part of the problems.

    1. Thanks Pedro. What we will see is that various regulatory requirements will keep humans in some positions on the ship for long time. Acceptance of technology in place of humans will also come from the simple lack of people willing to take jobs, no matter how well paying they might be.
      In example from another industry: Deutsche Bahn, rail operator in Germany, reported shortage of about 700 train drivers (against 18,000 people workforce). Shortage would become even greater as the average age of train drivers is 50 years and many will retire in the next couple years. Will this be sufficient for DB to start experimenting with autonomous trains to provide 700 robots to cover the shortage? If yes, then why would they stop at 700, if they might as well be going simply replacing each retiree with automated driver and stop hiring. Maybe not the same situation for ship owners and ship management companies, but tantalizing question of the future of human workforce in shipping nonetheless.

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