Technology is allowing all sorts of things a voice these days, and in order to make the most of the digital opportunity that has to include our people, says K D Adamson.

I think we’ve known each other long enough now that the inclusion of a picture of a monkey to head this article won’t raise any eyebrows.

We use a lot of pictures of animals—we’ve had everything from birds to pigs to geese to cows (twice)—and for each one of them Futurenautics has paid the owner of the copyright a fee to reproduce it. That’s where this photo of a monkey is different. In fact it’s pretty unique. Because this photo of a monkey wasn’t taken by a wildlife photographer. The monkey took it. It’s a monkey selfie. I’ll give you a moment to go and have another look and realise just how exponentially funnier and more uplifting that photo is now you realise it was taken by the monkey itself. (You’re welcome).

I hope you enjoyed it, because now I’m obliged to bring you back to earth with a bit of a bump. Because the monkey who took this selfie is currently suing someone for breach of copyright in the court of the 9th Circuit of the United States of America, for publishing its photograph without permission. Bad monkey.

Now as anyone who has been to Gibraltar, or had their golf buggy hijacked by a hardened monkey gang on Sentosa Island twenty years ago—and I accept that may only be me—will tell you, monkeys can be dangerous. But traditionally they don’t lawyer-up. This bizarre state of affairs began when wildlife photographer David Slater left his camera equipment lying around in an Indonesian rainforest, and the Sulawesi crested macaque in question discovered the art of the selfie.

Slater subsequently published the photograph and it went viral on the Internet. Perhaps inevitably, the photo was uploaded to Wikimedia Commons, which is where the problems started. Slater complained that he owned the copyright in the photo, so they should take it down.  Wikimedia however, determined that Slater did not have a copyright in the photo, because the author is actually the monkey. But the monkey is an animal and animals can’t own copyrights. Ergo, the photo is in the public domain.

The monkey’s name—by the way—is Naruto. At least we think it is. There’s every possibility that the monkey actually calls himself Barry.

I know what you’re thinking—Slater sued Wikimedia, right? Wrong. Slater decided to self-publish a book of his photographs with the self-publishing platform Blurb, and included the monkey’s selfie—whose name, by the way, is Naruto. At least, we think it is. There’s every possibility that the monkey actually calls himself Barry. It was at this point that the organisation PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) stepped in and sued Slater and the self-publishing book company, Blurb Inc, for breach of copyright on behalf of Naruto/Barry. Which is why, to cut a very long story short, everybody ended up in court.

How the judges of the 9th Circuit decide to rule in this case we’ll just have to wait and see. Although logic would dictate that if they see fit to uphold the monkey’s claim of breach of copyright, any lawyer worth his salt would immediately recommend a counter-claim for the theft of the camera and equipment.  Because without the technology—intuitive and powerful technology—contained within that equipment, the monkey would never have been able to express itself in the way it did. The technology enabled the monkey to create an image that communicated something about its state of mind to us that we otherwise wouldn’t ever have seen. And that really is the tip of the iceberg. Because whilst a monkey selfie is hilarious, what it tells you about how the world is changing is rather more sobering.

If you run a dairy farm today then there’s a very good chance that you might be considering, or have already invested in, a new generation of automatic milking machines. Farms have had milking automation for some time, but what technology is enabling now is far more than automation. It’s bovine empowerment.
For anyone who hasn’t had need to understand the ins and outs of how dairy farmers keep our breakfast tables stocked with milk, it is achieved by keeping cows in a near-perpetual state of impregnation, and hence lactating.

Traditionally farmers have brought the cows in for milking twice a day—pre-dawn and late-afternoon—but the new machines don’t require cows to come in at a set time. Now cows can decide when to line up for milking, and they can do so up to five or six times a day.  The transponders around their necks mean that cows get individualised service, with lasers scanning and mapping their underbellies and an algorithm learning each one’s “milking speed” (see, cows have a milking speed – don’t say we never learn you nothing). The algorithm also monitors the amount and the quality of the milk that’s produced, how much the cow has eaten and how many steps it’s taken, which apparently can indicate when the animal is in heat.

Now giving cows the ability to be milked when they want to be might not sound very significant, but milk production varies between different cows and not being milked when you need to be can be uncomfortable, as most women who have breast fed a baby will tell you—or, again, maybe that’s just me.  So what this new technology is doing is giving cows autonomy. It is giving them the power to organise their milking schedule to their own personal preference. This technology, as near as makes no difference, is giving cows the ability to communicate. And what they have communicated to farmers, apparently, is that they like to be milked far more frequently than farmers have ever realised. Milk output has correspondingly increased. This technology has given cows a voice. It has allowed them to improve their lot, and they are happier as a consequence.

The You Tube Kids app algorithm has now learnt more about what small children do, and do not like than all the combined research, experience and parenting that’s taken place in the sum of human history

Unlike the mildly delusional approach at PETA, the Humane Society of the United States have got behind the idea of happier cows. “Not being milked hurts,” said Paul Shapiro, its vice president before going on to say that allowing cows to move around rather than being tied up was another major improvement. I’ve spoken many times about the fact that digital widens participation, it enables personalisation and engagement on a truly massive scale, and it can enable the marginalised and the powerless to have a voice. So if I often sound optimistic about technology, that’s a good part of why. I can’t see any universe in which having happier cows isn’t progress, and on one level I also understand the motivation of PETA in bringing their ridiculous court case.

It is a mark of humanity to treat other living creatures with respect and dignity. But we have to understand that there are still plenty of human beings in the world who aren’t being extended the same courtesy. The developments we’re seeing in robotics and brain computer interfaces often have their genesis in efforts to allow those who are paralysed to communicate and move their limbs again, or to control prostheses which allow them to participate in the world more easily. But it doesn’t have to stop at people who have lost function.

My kids are older now, but if you have a three-year-old in your life then you’re probably well-acquainted with the You Tube Kids app. It’s a stripped down version of You Tube with an algorithm which has now learnt more about what small children do and do not like, than all the combined research, experience and parenting that’s taken place in the sum of human history.

Like my younger sister who at the age of 4 insisted that she be served 5 baked beans on her plate—not one more or less—or would flatly refuse to eat anything, what the algorithm has pointed out to psychologists is that toddlers can often feel powerless. Because whilst to you and I that fluff-covered sticky lollipop which has been on the floor so often it could qualify as a lab experiment, is interchangeable with an identical one fresh out of the packet, as far as your three-year-old is concerned you might as well have given them a bag of toenail clippings. Powerless to explain that, or indeed get the lollipop back, what would you do? Empowering small children to control their own destinies and make their own choices, where it’s safe and practicable to do so, is a radical possibility. With rates of mental health disorders rocketing in the Gen Y and Gen Z’s, it’s absolutely essential that we find better ways to support them, and just like adults, children who feel powerless tend more towards depression.

Digital is devolving power and autonomy to monkeys and cows and three-year-olds. It’s doing the same to individual components in engines and cars and ships and creating a situation where we can allow inanimate objects to speak to us and share their view of their environment. And of vital importance, it’s also enabling us to trust what they’re telling us, because we’re all able to see the data on which their views are based. I was interviewed by the nice people at V. Group when I was at Nor-Shipping (you can watch that online if you are so inclined) and they asked me the question, is digital transformation about technology, or people? I think they were slightly surprised when I told them in no uncertain terms that it was about people. But then when you look at the narrative around digital transformation in shipping, you could be forgiven for thinking that it isn’t.

For a number of years unmanned ships have been shorthand for digital transformation, and that’s very revealing. Technology has always been shorthand for engineering in shipping, which means big, noisy, oily bits of machinery which are handled by no-nonsense men in boiler suits with a Bahco shifter in the top pocket.  So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the only way most of the industry has been able to approach digital transformation is by trying to understand it in that same, heavy engineering context. It’s comforting for a lot of people to believe that what digital presents is a straight fight between a ship that needs people on board and a ‘drone’.

What that utterly fails to appreciate is that digital transformation isn’t a technology wave—engineering or otherwise—it’s a business transformation wave. And guess what. Business is actually all about people.  The purpose of a business is to deliver a satisfactory service to an end-customer at a profit. It’s something that vast swathes of the shipping industry have forgotten, but worse than forgetting that people are its customers, it’s also forgotten that people are its business.

Industry 4.0 is seeing automation and autonomy reaching into every part of the manufacturing and supply chain and in the search for efficiency and cost reduction every aspect of the operation of the ship is being scrutinised. What we’re looking for are opportunities to standardise, optimise and automate.  To do so we are spending huge amounts of time and energy and money getting the systems on board the ships to talk to us. We are creating components and systems that can communicate with us and each other in real time and which we can trust to take action on their own.

There are many who understand that, even on the cutting-edge of technology, once you stop believing what you do is about people it’s time to pack up and go home. What the shipping industry has traditionally considered ‘soft’ stuff, is actually the hardest stuff of all.

But here’s a question for you—one I often pose to audiences when I speak. How many of your people are trusted and autonomous? Do you communicate and listen to them in real-time? And if every single one of them were, and you did, what difference would it make to your ships, your business and your customers? Automating everything to remove the nuisance of humans seems to make perfect sense because as everyone will tell you, they’re responsible for 85 per cent of all accidents after all. But in this era of data, intelligence and analytics that’s a statistic which should be consigned to the dustbin.

We’re exceptionally good at deciding when human beings get things wrong, when they fail. But we have absolutely no understanding of what human beings contribute on board a ship to make it work. What we need is to create a holistic, detailed picture of how a vessel works, and we are now in a position to do just that. Visibility needs to be at a system level, so we can really see how humans and machines work together onboard, and where the regulations and processes we’ve put in place are, and are not, fit for purpose.

From wearables to high-throughput satellite links we have an unprecedented opportunity to finally understand how teams at sea and ashore, and the equipment they use really interact. And if we really want to optimise what we do, we need to. There is a vast pool of untapped knowledge amongst seafarers.  We try and tap into it in a small way here at Futurenautics Maritime via our Crew Connectivity survey, which we describe as giving crew a voice.

In shipping we have some of the most powerless and marginalised workers anywhere, yet they hold knowledge and insight that is incredibly valuable.  We seem very ready to discard that in preference for a machine. How much more powerful to leverage both.

The real trick will be to use advancing technologies to listen to seafarers, empower them and understand how we hold onto what was really good about the past and use technology to amplify it in the future, whilst we work to eradicate the bad stuff. From the inspirational KARE programme run by Yuzuru Goto, Managing Director of K-Line LNG, to Oskar Levander and his team at Rolls-Royce trying to understand better how people interact with technology onboard, there are many who understand that even on the cutting edge of technology, once you stop believing what you do is about people, it’s time to pack up and go home. What the shipping industry has traditionally considered ‘soft’ stuff, is actually the hardest stuff of all.

Digital has allowed cows and toddlers to speak to us. If we can only allow seafarers and their colleagues ashore to do the same, the impact could be profound.

It’s said that if you pay peanuts you get monkeys. But if you pay attention you get a whole lot more.


Image courtesy of a litigious monkey

This article appeared in the Q3 2017 issue of Futurenautics.


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