Tech Talk – Emerging Tech

Some of the technology discussed may never impact the ports industry. Some might take longer than five to 10 years. In discussing them here, the point isn’t to say that they are all going to revolutionize your terminal. The technology world around us is constantly changing. While the pace of change for ports is a bit slower, it isn’t entirely isolated from emerging tech and its potential impact. Having only just gotten our heads around the last round of game-changers like big data, cloud, and the internet of things (IoT), you might be discouraged by the idea of more technology. But stay the course, as some of this tech could significantly impact how you run your port in five or 10 years’ time.

Technology Is Here to Stay

“Come here, I want to see you” were the first words communicated over the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell to his assistant in 1876. After that first call, Bell penned a letter to his father in which he noted, “The day is coming when [telephone cables] will be laid on to houses just like water or gas – and friends converse with each other without leaving home.” Despite its revolutionary ability to connect people anywhere, anytime, it took approximately 75 years for the telephone to reach 50 million users. A lack of infrastructure and technological constraints are generally the two factors noted when discussing the very slow, by today’s standards, adoption of the technology.

Fast-forward to the 1950s, and the TV was introduced; it took TV about 13 years to reach 50 million users. Fast-forward again to the late ’80s, and the first commercially available internet hit the market – it took approximately four years to reach 50 million users. In 2016, Pokemon Go was launched, and the app reached 50 million users in 19 days! The pace of technological adoption has been quickening ever since Bell. The challenges that hindered the adoption of the telephone are all but nonexistent today.

Today, the internet serves as a common backbone for almost all technological innovation. While not perfect, its common use architecture allows anyone, anywhere, to develop and distribute a new technology with ease. Further, since the mid 1900s, Moore’s Law has seen the steady doubling of technological capability every two years or so. While Moore’s Law might be coming to an end, it doesn’t change the fact that many of us carry a mini-supercomputer in our pocket. Ironically, these supercomputers take us back to the beginning of the story; our smartphones are designed to supersede the, now outdated telephone system. 

Today, consumer-facing technology companies are able to innovate on time frames measured in months, and users can adopt those innovations in mere days. While the pace of innovation and adoption is slower in the enterprise IT world, it too has dramatically increased over the past two decades, allowing corporations around the world to leverage savings and growth at the same time.

Over the past 25 years, improvements in computer hardware have resulted in an increase in computing power by a factor of 2,000 times. This seems impressive until one compares it to the advances in optimization algorithms over the same period. For instance, Linear Programming (LP) algorithms, considered one of the most important classes of optimization techniques by many experts, have improved by a factor of 1.4 million times. When combined, the effects of both advances generate a tremendous 2.8 billion times improvement in processing capability. To better understand this, a planning model using Linear Programming that takes us a second to solve today would have taken almost 100 years to solve in the ’90s.

Emerging Technologies

There are six emerging technologies that are worth keeping an eye on. Let’s define each and then look at a usage example within the ports and terminals industry.

Virtual Reality (VR)

Virtual reality is defined as an artificial, computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional environment requiring dedicated hardware (Google Cardboard, headset, controller, etc.) to generate an immersive user experience similar to firsthand reality. Its application in the ports sector has already started with large equipment manufacturers implementing it for safety design checks. But if we think ahead five to 10 years, it has the power to revolutionize both how we train terminal operators and how we remotely operate terminal equipment. Using VR, it is completely possible that the crane drivers of the future could work from anywhere in the world, using off-the-shelf VR hardware.

Augmented Reality (AR)

Augmented reality layers digital elements and data onto the real world, blending digital information and real-world imagery to create an enhanced experience. Its main advantage over VR is that it doesn’t require dedicated hardware. And with major smart-device manufacturers like Apple announcing in 2018 both hardware- and software-level support for AR, we’re likely to see an increase in its adoption across the board. For terminals, common tools and tasks could become smarter through AR. Imagine you’re a straddle carrier operator and your transport orders were overlaid onto a heads-up display windscreen with a real-time view of the terminal that offered both routing instructions and container search validation – entirely possible.


A chatbot receives voice- or text-based queries, searches available datasets for answers, and sends the answer back to the user in either a text or audio format. We all know chatbots; think Siri and Alexa. For ports, chatbots will become a more intuitive way of interacting with common technology platforms. The main advantage is that anyone can engage with a system regardless of their skill level. You simply ask the system a question and it guides you through to an outcome.


Blockchain is a technology platform that provides a secure digital ledger in which transactions are recorded in chronological order and made public across multiple nodes that hold a shared copy of the ledger. Blockchain must be the tech buzzword of 2018. We have all heard of it, whether it be because of the extravagant value of Bitcoin at the end of 2017 or IBM’s application of the technology in the ports sector. Either way, blockchain is certainly here to stay. For the maritime shipping industry, the most promising application of blockchain is in digitizing the traditional bill of lading process to bring it into the 21st century.

Edge Computing

Edge computing allows data produced by IoT devices to be processed closer to where it is created instead of sending it across networks to data centers (or the cloud). In short, edge computing leverages the massive increases in computing power that are now commonplace. We carry more computing power in our pockets to make phone calls (our smartphones) than was available to send men to the moon in the 1960s. This, coupled with the fact that reliable data transfer and bandwidth have remained challenges, and one can see why edge computing is on the rise. For terminals, it has practical applications today. Refers inside a terminal equipped with smart IoT sensors should be capable of notifying the terminal if the temperature of the refer moves outside of a predefined acceptable range without needing to verify that decision with a central server. In the edge computing model, data from IoT devices is still shared back to the central data warehouse, albeit less frequently during low data bandwidth usage periods (i.e., overnight).

Digital Twins

A digital twin is a virtual model of a process, asset, product, or service. IoT devices with digital twins pair the virtual and physical worlds together, allowing an in-depth analysis of data and real-time monitoring of systems to improve one’s ability to respond to real-world scenarios. It isn’t hard to imagine a terminal in five or 10 years where every vehicle, container, or on-premise staff member has a digital twin inside the TOS, allowing the TOS to make better decisions.

Powering the Future

Some of the above six technologies will play significant roles in the future. Exactly how and where will, of course, remain to be seen. But they each possess the ability to add value to terminal operators – whether that value be monetary, social, or cultural. Like it or not, the future is one that will be powered by technology, and there are two more technologies to add to the mix. But they are special because they enable each of the technologies introduced above in some way shape or form, as well as offering their own value.

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

Artificial intelligence is an area of computer science that’s concerned with building systems that demonstrate intelligent behavior. Most people find it difficult to agree on a precise definition of intelligence, so people’s views of what artificial intelligence means also tend to diverge. For most people, when they hear the term artificial intelligence, or AI, they think of a General AI, or human-level AI, that can mimic all aspects of human intelligence. The simple truth, however, is that today, AI is far away from this. Instead, AI vendors have succeeded in building niche, or so-called Narrow AI, systems that know how to do reasonably specific things very well (for instance, play chess, translate between languages, understand natural language, or drive autonomous vehicles). It is these Narrow AI systems that are now making their way into our industry at a rapid pace as part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Machine Learning (ML)

In contrast with General AI’s goal of mimicking human intelligence, machine learning tools use algorithms to iteratively learn from and adapt to data, enabling computers to find hidden insights without being instructed where to look. A beginner’s example for this can be found in your email inbox: spam filters. Simple rule-based filters are not very effective against spam since spammers can quickly update their messages to work around them. Instead, ML-enhanced spam filters continuously learn from a variety of signals and tailor themselves to the email needs of the individual user. ML is already making its way into terminals around the globe as a means to mine data to improve processes.

Closing Thoughts – Technology and Millennials Matter

Some of the technology discussed may never impact the ports industry. Some might take longer than five or 10 years. In discussing them here, the point isn’t to say that they are all going to revolutionize your terminal. Some of them may be too radical for some terminals or their management teams. That’s okay. Rather, the point is to put them on your radar, to bring them to the front of your mind. One should consider the plight of the taxi industry globally when choosing to ignore or embrace new technology. Smartphones and apps didn’t appear overnight, but had taxi companies the world over chosen to be innovative and progressive, UBER and the taxi companies’ fight to remain relevant probably wouldn’t exist today.

On the whole, the maritime logistics industry, of which container terminals are a key element, is comprised predominantly of Baby Boomers with a small proportion of Gen X and Gen Y workers. In short, we have an aging workforce problem. Attracting millennials is as much about attracting young workers as it is about attracting skilled workers, and the underlying skills young people predominantly bring are tech-related.

By 2025, millennials will make up 75% of the global workforce, i.e., the generation of “pen and paper” operators is a dying species. Millennials have grown up with instantaneous communication, and high tech is woven into all aspects and areas of their lives. Millennials will not only penetrate the logistics workforce in the maritime industry, but also be the ones who drive demand on the customer side. “On-demand” and “digital” is their way of life – anything else will not be accepted; technology is at the core of this generation.

When you combine the technological innovations and an entire generation of digital natives – the millennials – we are headed directly into an era when technology will not support terminal operations, but rather define them. We’re seeing the start of this in automated terminals where processes have been redefined to suit robotic equipment. The addition of technologies like AI and machine learning will see more significant changes to come. The innovators in the industry have the power, now, to define what the terminal of the future will look like, and those who lag behind their innovation will have no choice but to meet that standard or risk becoming irrelevant.

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