Propelling Ahead With AI

By Nazery Khalid, Adjunct Professor at Universiti Malaysia Terengganu and Taylor’s University and a Distinguished Fellow at Maritime Institute of Malaysia

The world is feeling the momentum of the wave of Artificial Intelligence (AI) whose application is gaining traction and whose effects are being gradually but unmistakably felt in many aspects of life. 

As one of the pillars of the Industrial Revolution 4.0 (IR 4.0) that is sweeping the world and enabling the development of digital economy, AI is increasingly making its mark in various industries,

AI has become a key enabler that helps to fuse separate technologies and devices, plus facilitating the integration of physical and digital domains.

The coming together of these two realms creates has unleashed tremendous changes and disruptions to our lives and to trade, economies, businesses and industries. The rapid development of AI has added cherry on top of the ‘digital revolution’.

The application of AI creates exciting opportunities as much as it evokes anxiety and concerns, especially from those who are fearful that their jobs would be less relevant and taken over by ‘thinking machines’. It is a sure sign that the world is moving towards greater use of AI. 

The launching of ChatGPT by Open AI in November 2022 has magnified these concerns as the chatbot has proven to be a useful, fairly reliable tool to undertake certain tasks, so much so that it could potentially be a game-changing, massive disruptor to the order of many things. 

It is obvious that the world is moving towards greater utilization of AI which is now available on open platforms and free to the public.  

With the arrival of such sea change, few people, industries and businesses operating in the digital environment will be spared of its effects and influences. Few spaces have been spared by AI, and the maritime industry is no exception. 

This article discusses the use of AI in the industry and the effects it has generated in activities such as shipping, shipbuilding / ship repair, port operations and various services supporting them.  

Upping the AI ante in the maritime industry

The maritime industry is a pivotal facilitator of global trade and economy. An estimated 90 percent of global trade which involves raw materials and manufactured goods of all kinds, are transported by cargo-carrying ships across the world’s oceans. 

Offshore support vessels (OSV) are crucial enablers of offshore exploration and production (E&P) of energy while the ocean and coastal fishery sector depends greatly on fishing vessels. 

Ships also facilitate the transportation of passengers at sea and on various bodies of waters on land, plus playing a pivotal role in safeguarding the safety, security and strategic interests of littoral nations. 

Meanwhile, shipping is supported by a wide range of ancillary services such as shipbuilding / ship repair, ship design, marine equipment and components manufacturing, classification, ship financing and maritime education and training, among many others.  

Given its pivotal role in facilitating the global trade and economy, the maritime industry is not immune to the developments in and influences of technologies, including IR 4.0 applications. 

The adoption and applications of digital technologies and solutions are visible in many activities within the industry, and in the case of some, they are getting increasingly pervasive.  

Take AI, a key component of IR 4.0 which is fast making a telling impact in many aspects of life and in industries and business activities.  Amongst the areas in the maritime industry which AI is seen to be increasingly used are :

  1. detection of performance issues through identification of anomalies in assets and processes by way of machine learning and high-level pattern recognition;  
  1. process optimization through improvements of efficiency and productivity by using tailor-made algorithms, principles analysis and machine learning; 
  1. decision to minimize / mitigate risk making using AI-drive software that can help carry out root cause analysis, bespoke guidance and risk-based assessment;
  1. predictive analysis using multi-dimensional information model from a huge pool of data and provide analysis and context which can be used with tools for reporting; and
  1. use of AI-driven cybersecurity equipment, systems and solutions to protect data in cyberspace.

In the shipping sector, there are already several examples of AI being co-opted into operations and strategies of shipping companies. These include:

  1. use of real-time information by shipping companies to send and receive data on cargo transported by their ships;
  1. testing of virtual, crewless ships and ships with e-navigation features such as electronic charts and technologically driven eco-friendly features;
  1. application of Internet of Things and Virtual Reality and use of sensors and data management to monitor ships’ emissions and fuel consumption to enhance energy efficiency;
  1. use of Big Data Analytics in supply chain management, procurement of ship parts, equipment and components, fleet management and activities such as voyage planning and routing, cargo loading / unloading and cargo tracking;
  1. use of Predictive Analysis in scheduled and unscheduled maintenance of vessels and to schedule and manage their voyages optimally and efficiently, and to avoid delays and downtime; 
  1. use of Machine Learning to deal with the unpredictable and unexpected scenarios arising from emergencies and forced changes of routes and incidents such as pirate attacks, collision and cargo spill; and 
  1. use of 3-D Printing or Additive Manufacturing onboard ships to churn out small marine equipment parts during emergency situations until they can be replaced by the real items. 

The application of AI is also making its mark in the shipbuilding and ship repair sector and in the fabrication / MRO of offshore structures such as oil rigs, jackets, platforms and accommodation modules. 

More yards are using remotely controlled, autonomous vehicles and robotics while undertaking repair and maintenance works to check the integrity of vessels and offshore structures. 

Another noticeable trend is the increasing use of sophisticated computer aided design software and by naval architects to design ships and share draft designs through cloud computing with shipowners, consultants, marine equipment and systems manufacturers and classification societies.  

AI is also used in non-commercial activities within the maritime industry, including in the military shipbuilding. It was recently reported that a research commissioned by the China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy has found that the use of AI to design the electrical layout of a warship took a mere one day compared to humans who would take 300 hours to complete the task.  

The research team certified that the advanced AI software delivered the design with impressive accuracy and it is ready for engineering applications. 

This may be a portent of things to come in ship design.  This crucial task in shipbuilding will see the increasingly active and influential role of AI and less of human efforts, while boosting productivity and accuracy in the process.   

Enabling the use of AI in the marine industry

To facilitate the use of AI in a seamless and efficient manner to enable marine industry players to optimize their use, several pillars and key enablers have to be in place.  

First and foremost, there must be an enabling ecosystem with solid regulatory framework, masterplan with clear objectives and incentives to facilitate the use of AI and other IR 4.0 related technologies and solutions.

Much of the successful, smooth and efficient use of AI hinges on companies and industry practitioners but with strong institutional support, tech-friendly policies and a facilitating environment that encourages its use, they will find it easier to infuse AI into their activities. 

Policies encouraging the use of AI are pivotal and so are the availability of rules and regulations that can help foster the use of AI in the maritime industry. 

This is important to ensure that the use of AI is secure and its application will not compromise the need for maritime industry players to be cost competitive and keeping seaborne trade and maritime supply chains smooth and efficient. 

To this end, the offering of incentives such as tax breaks, financial assistance and support for the development of highly skilled, tech savvy workers adept at working with AI tools and solutions is most helpful to boost the use of AI in the maritime industry. 

They contribute towards creating a facilitating, conducive environment that can incentivize industry players and practitioners to adapt AI solutions and technologies to boost their productivity and efficiency. 

Such an environment could be a powerful attraction for graduates and tech savvy workers in other industries to join the marine industry which is facing a big challenge in luring skilled human capital. 

Another essential pillar to enhance the use of AI in the maritime industry is attracting investments among tech-oriented investors, financiers and companies. 

In this regard, the experience of Silicon Valley is informative. Once a critical mass of such players is in place, it will open the door for others to populate the area. 

This will act as a springboard for others to further the cause of undertaking research, investing and encouraging the use of technologies there.  

Having such a base would help boost the application of AI in the maritime industry. In the case of Malaysia, such a base can be developed around an established port, for example Port Klang which enjoys close proximity to Klang Valley where many MNCs and tech players are based and which enjoys good physical and digital infrastructures. 

The availability of tech-friendly investors / financiers and easy access to manufacturers of hardware, software and providers of various AI related services can create a cluster of key players to enable AI to flourish. 

In such an environment, rt operators, shipowners, shipyards, maritime ancillary service players, Government agencies and maritime authorities can be highly encouraged to adapt AI in their activities and can conveniently infuse AI into their strategies and operations.

Just as important is preparing and developing the human capital to operate comfortably within an AI environment. To produce AI / digital-savvy pool of workers, it is essential to recalibrate the education, training and learning processes to cater to the maritime industry’s demands for such human resources. 

Also important is to prepare workers in the industry adequately to ensure that their needs, roles and importance will not be usurped by AI and to maintain their relevance in adjusting to the profound transition from human-dominated activities to a complex digital environment.  

Shipping is known to be a sector in which the players tend to react to developments and wait for regulations to spur them to adopt to new technologies. 

Underlining this, there is considerably strong resistance to change amongst shipowners and seafarers who are concerned about the introduction of AI to the sector. 

Their anxiety of having their jobs being replaced by AI is a real one and needs to be addressed. For AI to be smoothly and successfully integrated into shipping, there must be a clear mapping out of the role that seafarers will play in a digitalized environment.

There must be a transition plan on how they will fit in within the AI environment and work hand in hand with AI in a safe, secure, comfortable and environmentally friendly manner. 

This needs to be done in a way which will not compromise of the need to deliver economic value to shipowners and to ensure the provision of safe, efficient and cost-effective shipping services to facilitate the global trade and economy.  

In this regard, it is important that all stakeholders in the maritime industry hand in hand to pre-empt and address the human factors that will emerge with the more intensive involvement of digitalization and AI. 

These include issues of displacement, physical and mental wellbeing of industry workers, the need to develop human capital adept in and comfortable with working with AI and the other changes that AI will bring. 

It would be in the best interest of all the stakeholders especially workers in the industry that AI and other IR 4.0 technologies and solutions are used with minimal disruption and in such a way that ensures their welfare and wellbeing while enhancing efficiency, productivity and competitiveness, complying with all rules and regulations, and ensuring the global economy and trade continues to be served well by the maritime industry.

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