“FAST One, Container. Stand by for mission start.” The helmsman steps back from the controls, flicks the button on the radio once to signal acknowledgement. On the dashboard, unseen, an LCD display flicks over from “MANUAL” to “AUTONOMOUS”. Engines rev, water bubbles and begins to surge, the air fills with smoke and the smell of diesel. And away we go.
This isn’t the first time; it’s closer to the hundredth. But it never stops feeling strange to be on a boat that has just driven off on its own, humans relegated to babysitting duty as the AI takes control. No matter how many times you’ve seen the mission on-screen, tweaked it, re-planned it; no matter how much of the software you wrote yourself and how many tests you’ve run; at that moment you are out at sea and at the mercy of the machine.
The world’s Navies watch from afar, video feeds matching up with a little red icon moving slowly across a chart of the harbour. The AI does its thing. Transit in, turn, deploy. Fibre-optic cable spools from its rattling drum. A long wait, trawling slowly away from the harbour walls. “End of mission,” they radio in, then the cable is wound in, the boat kicks back into manual, and back home we go.
Later, words of congratulation trickle down to the small office where we sit and code and eat biscuits between the coils of ethernet cable and the piles of heavy-weather gear. It was a world first, they say. The cutting edge of remote mine disposal is ours to wield.
The boat is put to sleep, and we adjourn to the pub to celebrate another successful trial. No, the boat is turned off. When did I start to think of it as “sleeping”?