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TALKING POINT: Envisioning a safe and inclusive future for remote operators

May 08, 2024
Main image Caitlin Bentley

Each month, we will be sharing a discussion piece written by a member of the maritime industry who can offer a unique or interesting perspective on an aspect of seafarers’ welfare. You can join the conversation on our social media channels – Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

This month, Dr. Caitlin Bentley – a Lecturer in AI Education at King’s College London – discusses how the remote operation industry provides an opportunity to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in the maritime sector.

Dr. Caitlin Bentley is a Lecturer in AI Education at King’s College London, actively shaping the future of responsible AI through education. She is a member of the Delivery Team on the UKRI Responsible Artificial Intelligence UK (RAI UK) programme and co-director of the UKRI Safe and Trusted AI Centre for Doctoral Training. Previously, she served on the UKRI Trustworthy Autonomous Hub Skills Committee, Syllabus Lab, and EDI working group. Caitlin's multi-disciplinary academic background includes a PhD in Human Geography, ICT4D, from Royal Holloway, University of London, a Masters in Educational Technology from Concordia University, and a BA in Computer Science from McGill University. Caitlin has been researching how professionals across various sectors will need a variety of technical, professional and strategic skills to be effective.

When we think about remotely operated surface ships, it's hard not to imagine sleek, high-tech control rooms with fancy dashboards and a lone male operator at the helm (as pictured above). Yet, the remote operation industry presents a unique chance to foster greater inclusivity within the maritime sector. By operating boats from a control centre on shore, many obstacles that have historically deterred underrepresented groups from pursuing seafaring careers could diminish. For instance, women who shoulder caregiving duties and are unable to commit to extended periods at sea, or individuals living with disabilities who cannot obtain necessary certifications, could foreseeably access new opportunities opening up in this field. However, in male-dominated industries like the tech sector, underrepresentation in design can potentially cause many blind spots in the software, equipment, set-up, interface, operational environment or safety testing1. The question arises: how can we turn the possibility for greater inclusivity into a reality?

In collaboration with the Maritime Coastguard Agency of the UK, our project team consisting of researchers from King’s College London, Sheffield University and Bournemouth University are using intersectionality as a lens to examine how we can design and operate these systems in a way that puts people and their lived experiences first. This means actively seeking out and listening to the perspectives of those who have historically been excluded from the design of remote operations or from working as seafarers in the industry.

By understanding how technology intersects with social identities and systemic inequalities, we are able to look holistically at the issues, so that short-term design fixes are joined up with strategies for longer term operational and sectoral change. This involves not only examining the design of the technology itself but also the organisational processes and maritime regulation contexts in which it is deployed.

To put these ideas into practice, we developed and tested new safety and inclusion guidelines using a co-design approach. Building on the success of MCA’s Maritime Autonomy Regulation Lab (MARLab). MARLab was an innovative collaborative initiative to bring together actors from government, academia and industry, through which insights into regulator gaps, concepts of operation and potential hazards of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships were explored. We adapted a serious game that MARLab developed, which is a game that is designed for more than just entertainment. In our case, the game sought to simulate scenarios in a low-stakes environment to spur contemplation, discussion and creativity. Our adapted game was used to test the draft set of guidelines by working through scenarios in which intersectional differences and disadvantage were discussed by participants. By the end of the game, improvements to the guidelines that reflect the needs and wants of underrepresented groups were made clearer. This approach was effective for engaging people with limited technological, AI or remote operations experience because it contextualises the issues, and permits participants to discuss sensitive issues whilst reducing the likelihood of getting triggered by painful memories or experiences.

The final set of guidelines includes three dimensions: equity in design, voice in operations, and transforming the sector as a whole.

'MAS components may not have been designed to address diverse needs, due to biases within user testing or within machine learning training datasets; screen readers that work only in English; displays that overwhelm neurodivergent thinkers; or facial recognition technology that won’t recognise people of colour. These are just a few examples that put people at increased risk.

'We need to recognise that even if human-centred design standards have been followed, it matters who has been involved as ‘end-users’ either in conceptualisation, feedback or testing to address equity issues.'

Extract from 'The safety and inclusion guidelines for the design and deployment of maritime autonomous systems'

The guidelines are intended to help designers, managers, and regulatory bodies like the MCA ensure that genuine efforts are being made to address equity issues at every level by touching upon reflecting on your inclusion strategy in design processes, to examining operational standards, and advocating for better accident reporting.

So what comes next? It's clear that there is a desire for change and that underrepresented groups are eager for new opportunities in the industry. Now is the time to find and empower the next generation of trailblazers who will create a more inclusive future for the maritime sector. By working together and keeping safety and inclusion at the forefront, we can ensure that the benefits of this technological transformation are shared more equitably.

The safety and inclusion guidelines for the design and deployment of maritime autonomous systems can be downloaded below.

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