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Will Artificial Intelligence Take Over Yachts and Yachting?

Computers are taking over, but humans are still necessary.

April 18, 2018
artificial intelligence yachting
I don’t want an angry engine deciding it doesn’t feel like full throttle when my boat is on the wrong side of a breaking sea. Steve Haefele

I ’ve been thinking about something my boatbuilder pal Mike said as I attempted to shimmy beneath my wife Nelia’s high-tech automobile. Mike had been warning me about the dangers of artificial intelligence. “Soon, computers will no longer have any use for humans,” he said. “They’ll do away with us.”

I looked at the car and wondered if my time had come.

After years of twisting wrenches in the bowels of boats, I decided a few years back that I no longer cared to be handy. Ergo, when my wife’s “smart” car refused to budge, she summoned the dealer. The driver of the flatbed that collected it offered his opinion: “Pal, consider yourself lucky. I shoveled up the remains of one of these sleds that had spontaneously combusted. It took the guy’s house with it.”

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I thought of Mike’s warning and wondered if perhaps the vehicle had been radicalized.

In our case, $1,500 later, the dealer assured my wife that her car would again respond to her commands. When it refused the next morning, I dutifully relented and grabbed my tools.

Years earlier, when I was coming up in the yacht business, an aging captain ­explained to me that, other than a handle of rum, there was nothing quite as useful as a handful of tools. “Always use the tools first,” he had instructed.

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While rum is still useful, tools are of little use without diagnostic software to do the thinking. So I was surprised when my wife’s vehicle began cooperating after a few threatening gestures with my 9mm wrench. While the dealer claimed that the vehicle’s brain had been right to insist on repairs, I’m not sure. Could it be that given the threat of a fed-up, wrench-wielding human being, the vehicle decided to run off and fight another day?

Today’s boats and cars think alike because they come from the same school. Once upon a time, a marine diesel required only air and fuel, and a skipper with a screwdriver and wrench could ensure its delivery. Now a silicon brain controls an engine’s behavior and senses its moods. A skipper must be a code reader and capable of silicon brain surgery.

I’m no fogy. I’m an early adopter, for God’s sake. I was writing computer programs for yacht design in the 1980s. I get it: Computers have improved yachting. After a day at sea burping soot, my analog diesels left me looking like a coal miner. That said, I don’t want an angry engine deciding it doesn’t feel like full throttle when my boat is perched on the wrong side of a breaking sea.

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I believe that humans should do the thinking and computers should do the work. Like my pal Mike, I’m not sure computers can be trusted, but I do think they’ll have reason enough to keep us around.

I predict the smart stuff aboard will conspire to benefit yachts of the future: “Sorry captain, the head reports you enjoyed pinot noir last night and you blew 0.09 into the VHF radio. The wine supply is locked, and the electronic controls will not respond. You’re beached, and I’m headed to the boatyard with your credit card.”

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