in Project Management AI

Defining AI: What sailing 750 miles with an AI taught me

An AI, in this case, an auto-helm took the wheel for most of a recent 750 mile (about 1,200km) sail from Hobart to Sydney in Australia. With the sail taking almost 2 weeks, I had some (a lot of) time to consider what this humble auto-helm meant in terms of artificial intelligence, defining AI and what makes us have a human-like relationship with some technology.

On the one hand the auto-helm is just some simple mathematics and logic that responds to inputs. On the other hand, out of all the equipment we had on the boat the auto-helm was the only one that got a name, the only one we projected emotion onto and the only one we felt affection towards.

Before we explore the definition of AI some background is needed for those unfamiliar with sailing and auto-helms.

Sailing deals with some environmental inputs: the speed and direction of the wind as well as the speed and direction of the waves. These have a general trend (e.g. the wind is coming from the south and the waves from the south east) and a variable, real-time factor (e.g. based on the boat’s current orientation to the wind and the waves the general effect of the environmental inputs is Y).

Based on where you want to go, you then need to weigh up these environmental inputs and make decisions about where you want the boat to face and the configuration of your sails. For instance, a sail boat that isn’t using its engine cannot go in the direction the wind is coming from. Instead it must point 30-40 degrees either side of the direction the wind is coming from.

With the auto-helms I’ve used the human’s need to make decisions about the sail configuration and where the boat needs to point. You then switch this to the auto-helm and it balances the effect of wind and waves to sail in the direction you have told it to go or at the angle from the wind you have told it to sail at (e.g. 35 degrees away from the wind coming from the north). This balancing has to take place in real-time due to the boat’s movement combined with changes in the waves and wind in relation to the boat.

What amazed me on our journey, as we dealt with the high seas, high winds and some high adrenaline situations, was the effectiveness and reliability of the auto-helm. As the boat bashed its way into high wind and surfed waves, our auto-helm handled the conditions brilliantly for over 40 hours straight. The auto-helms effectiveness and reliability over the years, even in the tough conditions, led to it being given a name – Hoolio – named in honour of an exceptionally good waiter we met on the boat’s first trip around Spain’s island of Mallorca.  

The naming of the auto-helm is my first point of interest. The fact that the auto-helm had a human name got me thinking, is this AI? AI experts would be quick to point out that it lacks general intelligence, that it isn’t strong AI. However, you can’t argue with the distinctly human affection that my fellow sailors and I developed for Hoolio over the course of our journey. We even projected emotions onto Hoolio; when there was too much force on the sails and Hoolio was overpowered we said he was “unhappy.”

Contrast this with our relationship to the boat’s GPS and radar systems. We didn’t name them, we don’t even think of them as remotely human. They are tools, collecting and displaying information. However, on a technical level the Hoolio auto-helm is no different. Hoolio is just some technology that collects data, processes the inputs and outputs something just as the GPS and radar systems do. The GPS and radar output to a screen, Hoolio outputs to the steering wheel. Hoolio’s inputs and outputs are probably simpler than the GPS’s.

So what made the crew and I think of Hoolio as AI but the GPS as a tool?

A consideration here is how seamlessly Hoolio interfaces with us humans. You press left to go left and right to go right, two buttons. Hoolio then takes care of the rest, balancing the environment against the direction you have asked. So to think of it as a computer only occurs to those familiar with the technology behind the scenes.

However, after much debate the conclusion was that Hoolio was making decisions about our future on our behalf based on what we had asked of him where as the GPS was giving us information that we still had to process and act upon. It’s this ability to make decisions about our future based on a simple request – “sail in this direction” – that makes us think of Hoolio as a human.

Reflecting further on this leads to the observation that we don’t need to get too caught up on hard definitions of “artificial intelligence.” In casual conversation about Hoolio we never used the words “computer”, “artificial” or “intelligence”. Most people don’t talk like this when interacting with AI.

It is tempting to take the conclusion we reached about Hoolio being human because he made decisions about our future and extrapolate this out to being what defines an artificial intelligence but humans and their relationships are notoriously more soft and fluid than that, so our definition about what an artificial intelligence is and is not will need to be soft and fluid as well.


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