2038: Future Visions with Erik Ward

In our final interview of 2020 and to conclude our exclusive series in partnership with Port Technology for the year, INFORM’s Matthew Wittemeier caught up with Erik Ward, Chief Information Officer (CIO) at GCT Global Container Terminals, to talk about his views of the future of our industry. From automation, data practices, and optimization to the ethics around AI, Erik takes us on a journey into the future worthy of our final interview of 2020.

Year: 2020

MW: In our book, 2038, we talk about many of today’s emerging technologies and their impact on the future. What technologies do you see today that will impact the future of port and terminal operations?

EW: I think any technology is going to impact the future of ports and terminals, but optimization and the marriage of optimization and automation will really drive the future of ports. Whether there are densely populated areas or there is a trend toward greater dispersion, we’re going to have to rely on the best way to move cargo to the people who need it. The only way to deal with something that complex is to use optimization and automation.

I think increasing focus on the environment and emissions reduction will also drive that technological advancement. So, whatever pressures there are on the industry and the world at large, we’ll have to rely on the future iterations of what we currently have to get us there.

MW: Circling back to optimization and automation, you talked about them as the key to dealing with changing demand. Do you see these technologies being used on a terminal-to-terminal basis or applied more broadly to the supply chain as a whole?

EW: The individual terminals are just a subset of that larger supply chain, right? I don’t know if we’ve made the quantum leap yet to tie all of those terminals together, but it certainly seems like that should be readily available, as it is in 2038. We’re getting smarter about how we’re using data and connecting dots, and if we can connect all those dots in a way that makes sense, we can start to optimize them. But it has to start at the individual terminal level. Individual terminals are the tip of the spear when it comes to driving those changes and improvements. Once organizations and people realize automation is a more efficient and safe way to handle day-to-day operations, and that it can be implemented in a way that marries the best of technology and the workforce, it will permeate throughout the supply chain.

But I also think the terminals themselves are only one point in the supply chain. The technology will point out problems to shipping lines, freight forwarders, BCOs, and trucking companies. Terminals may be able to say, “We’ve got a certain aspect of the supply chain covered, but when our data talks or we deliver cargo to you, there is a setback, or there is something that drops off. Here are some ideas for you to ponder as an industry partner or as a company that will further improve the overall supply chain.”

MW: With regard to the environment, you noted that we’ll need to work from the solutions we have now. Can you elaborate a bit more on that?

EW: I think plenty of concepts and solutions are out there that are helping move the industry away from fossil or burning fuels. Once that gets more traction and becomes a little more cost-effective, it becomes an important component of what’s next. Will we use the exact same things we’re using today, just better? Maybe. But more likely, we’ll stand on the shoulders of what was built today to get ourselves to the next level.

At GCT we are committed to sustainability. Our Global Commitment is an ongoing promise to reduce impacts on the environment and the community. Over the past 10 years, GCT has been increasingly recognized for its efforts to decouple growth from emissions by investing in technology, modernizing equipment, densifying existing footprints, and improving energy efficiency, and we continue to look for opportunities to have more impact.

So, whether it’s electric, solar, hydro, or something we haven’t even considered yet, I think people are looking for a means to be more sustainable in their operation – not only in ports but in every aspect of the global supply chain.

Year: 2025

MW: You’ve talked a lot about data. In 2038, we look back and note that the mid-2020s saw our industry solve many of the competitive challenges surrounding data sharing and collaboration. Do you think this is possible, or do you see a different future for the maritime industry?

EW: I think people are getting more and more comfortable with the idea of sharing data, but again, it comes back to building sufficient trust from partner to partner that the data they’re receiving is usable, valid, and not manipulated for someone else’s personal gain or their own personal reasons.

They need to know that it hasn’t been manipulated for a company’s own reasons and that we’re using data to solve problems. We’re not using it to enable one entity to capitalize more than another. It comes back to that regulation and the ethics component: If we are going to rely on one another, we need to have a fundamental trust that the information we’re receiving is real.

MW: You’re saying data is to be used to solve problems, which I wholeheartedly agree with, and not for capitalization or advantage for one company over another. However, there are a lot of trends in the industry toward the commercialization of data. Do you think that’s the right approach?

EW: I don’t want to say it’s wrong, but I think there are many ways to do that wrong and very few ways to do it right. There are people with very specific goals and interests when you’re talking about the commercialization of data, and if it’s put into the wrong entity’s hands, it could very easily spiral out of control. I’m not going to say it’s a hard-and-fast rule, no, but it does give me pause. It makes me concerned that if we commercialized data, people would start manipulating it. Data governance is a key piece to tackle and unleash collaboration.

MW: Absolutely. Do you think we’re making progress as an industry toward better data standards, or is there a lot of room for growth?

EW: I think there’s a lot of room for growth. Data is seen as a competitive advantage right now, so the transmission of data is also seen as a potential competitive advantage. As an industry, I don’t think we’re very good at coming up with standards. We have some gold standards in terms of data transmission via EDI or ANSI or EDIFACT, but the idea of standardization against APIs is a great example.

We’ve got so many different ways to communicate, and there is no standardization because there’s a consensus that lack of standardization is somehow a competitive advantage. There’s a lot of room for collaboration in the future, especially around data, which could help with some of the problems that come with the truth behind the data. While blockchain is still nascent in our industry, GCT has signed on to TradeLens to future-ready our operations and collaboration with supply chain partners.

MW: Who do you think should take the lead role in driving that collaboration? Is that something software vendors should be doing, or should terminal operators be doing it?

EW: I think it’s a job for the vendors. Terminal operators should have a seat at the table, and they should be front and center because it’s more than likely their information. But to build something truly sustainable, the architects of the systems themselves need to be responsible for driving that conversation forward.

Year: 2030

MW: Definitely. The impact of technology is used as a frame in 2038 to look at many social issues we’re all familiar with, like automation and job loss, and at more technological ideas, like the ethics surrounding the development of advanced computing systems like AI. What social challenges do you think we’ll be facing in a decade? Familiar ones or new ones?

EW: We’ve got plenty of challenges already surrounding those issues, whether it’s suggestive or it’s driving someone to think or respond a certain way. The awareness of that right now is at its highest point. I also think the awareness and the need for regulation and oversight of these technologies in our day-to-day lives will be more and more top-of-mind. We will start to learn how to better utilize these new technologies so we’re not harming ourselves or other people with some of them.

The rate at which we’re advancing from a technological standpoint is much faster than our normal rate of change. It’s going to take us some time to catch up and understand the things that have already been built, let alone the things that will be built in the future, but it’s in our own best interest. Most of the folks who are building this technology want to be able to continue to do so in a safe and ethical manner.

MW: You said we should stop and “catch up” on some of these advancements. If there’s one step we should be taking today to position ourselves for a decade from now, what would be the first step to achieving that pause-and-reflect moment?

EW: I think we need to be really truthful about the data we’ve already got and the experiences we already have to draw from it. We should try to understand what the impacts have been and unpack those impacts and results so that if we continue, we do it in a way that keeps our population and our children safe. Most importantly, it seems like we’re building things because we can, not necessarily because we should.

I think there should be an ethics-related panel, especially for new technology, where people genuinely ask themselves what could happen – not whether or not it can happen – but if it does happen, what happens next? And is that result healthy? Is it a good thing? Is it a step forward, a step sideways, or a massive step backward? If it’s a massive step backward, what mitigations or changes can be made to make it a positive?

MW: Yes. Is there one technology that you would say is on the horizon or that we’re toying with today that should be perhaps the first car in the rank for an ethics committee, as you noted?

EW: The first one that comes to mind is AI, right? On its face, it’s something that would start making its own decisions, and if it makes its own decisions, will those decisions be helpful or potentially harmful, and what are the mathematical equations behind them? Is there a way to build the equation in the first place so that it isn’t harmful? I don’t know the answer to that. A lot of folks who are a lot smarter than me are probably thinking about this all day long and don’t have an answer yet, but that’s the technology that bubbles to the top right now.

Year: 2035

MW: Our industry doesn’t exist in a bubble; its physical and political environments have real impacts on it. COVID-19 is making us all think twice about our reliance on global trade. Do you think the political shifts we’re seeing away from globalization have had an impact on our industry for the good or bad?

EW: The impact itself is enough to make us question whether it’s good or bad, and I think only time will tell. The mechanisms we have in place to move virtually anything from one point on earth to another are truly phenomenal. It’s a modern marvel that I can use a device that fits into my pocket, think of virtually anything off the top of my head, and within two days, have it magically show up on my front doorstep. That is unbelievable, and it truly is the end result of a very complex, very hardworking supply chain.

Is that a good thing? I think only time is going to tell. The immediacy of virtually anything you can think of just showing up, yes, it’s good for that immediate need, but is it good for us long-term? I have no idea. The obvious potential disruptions or disruptors out there, like COVID-19 or political strife in a certain area of the world, could cut off a part of the world, both import and export. There are definitely flaws in the system.

I think the expectation is that if we work flawlessly and the system is flawless, then it works great. But how do you deal with the disruptions in the future? Is there a smarter way to achieve just-in-time delivery for not only the goods and services we want from Amazon, but the goods and services we need, medical supplies and things of that nature, that we’ve all grown heavily reliant on other parts of the world to provide and deliver? Is there a better way to prevent those disruptions? I think it’s possible, but only time will tell which direction that goes.

Year: 2038

MW: So we’ve reached the year 2038. It’s been a whole lot faster than what it took Eva and me to produce the novel, but I think we’ve shared some great insights along the way. In a minute or so, what’s the one thing the reader should take away from this interview?

EW: That we’re in our infancy in terms of how we use technology and how we benefit from it. I think we’ve made a lot of huge jumps forward in the way we’re using automation and optimization algorithms and even scratching the surface of how we’re going to use AI. But there’s so much we don’t know or understand that we’ve got to be kind to ourselves. We don’t need to be in a massive hurry to get to 2038.

I think we need to get ourselves into a position to do it the right way so it doesn’t topple over or create new stressors. We’ve got to take our time to make sure whatever technology we plan to implement is hyper-beneficial rather than singularly beneficial.

MW: Eric, it’s been a pleasure sitting down with you. Thank you for your time.

EW: Likewise. Thank you.

Who’s Erik Ward?

Erik Ward is the Chief Information Officer at GCT Global Container Terminals, Inc., joining the executive team in August 2017. His role is to lead the IT strategic vision, day-to-day operations and projects for Technology & Systems at GCT terminals worldwide. Prior to joining GCT, Erik was a senior leader at Navis LLC, where he was RVP of Customer Operations and responsible for customer care and support for over 100 terminals. He has also held leadership roles for SSA Marine and Tideworks Technology in Seattle and Panama City, Panama.

What is 2038: Future Visions?

2038: Future Visions is a series of interviews from leading maritime logistics professionals who share their view of what our industry will look like in the year 2038. It is brought to you in partnership with Port Technology. 2038: Future Visions builds on the award-winning book 2038: A Smart Port Story, which INFORM published in 2019.

What is 2038: A Smart Port Story?

2038: A Smart Port Story explores the terminal of the future and the intricacies of technology, and its impact on both the port industry and society. Join Douglas as he unravels the mystery around an incident at the Port of Reykjavik, which sees an AGV collide with a human, leaving their life hanging perilously in the balance.

Haven’t read 2038: A Smart Port Story yet? Get started with Part 1 today!

More from the World of 2038 – The Athena Interviews

The Athena Interviews is a series run in 2019 in which INFORM’s Matthew Wittemeier interviewed Athena, the main AI character from 2038: A Smart Port Story, about a broad range of topics surrounding AI. In an interactive video format, readers/viewers are introduced to Athena as together they explore thought-provoking questions about the future of logistics, technology, and AI.

Missed the beginning of The Athena Interviews? You can pick it up from the start at PTI Exclusive: Athena Q&A Part 1.

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