Giant ships that can be operated by one man's voice are on the horizon. A 170,000-ton bulk carrier for iron ore and coal, now being built at a yard near Tokyo, will have a system allowing its main engine to be run automatically by voice commands.
And the builder, Sumitomo Heavy Industries, is working on having every shipboard function operated this way. The basic technology is not new; this is merely a new application of already standard voice recognition devices.
"There is already heavy automation on ships today. All we have done is link this to a voice recognition system," explains Kenjiro Hidaka, general manager of Sumitomo's ship sales department.
Because of this, the shipbuilder is sure the device will work -- even though it has yet to be installed.
On the new ship, the captain will merely give the order "full speed ahead," which will be repeated by the voice sensor for confirmation. If the machine has got it right, the captain will say "OK" or "yes"; only on hearing this will the machine translate the command into an electronic signal to the engines. The present device will recognize 11 different orders for engine operation.
Sumitomo says the system will be quite flexible. With the aid of a microphone and earphone set, the captain will be able to operate from the wing of the bridge, up to 150 feet from the machine.
The voice recognition device is only one of a number of improvements the builder says will enable this particular bulk carrier to use 45 percent less energy than other existing ships, although it is not yet known exactly how the new system will save energy. For now, says Mr. Hidaka, the system will not lead to any reduction in crew, but this is the ultimate aim.
Sumitomo is looking at further applications. Company experts say it is definitely possible to operate the ship's steering in the same way. They say it will eventually be feasible to have voice control of all shipboard functions, linked to the growing use of robots in Japanese industry.
Mr. Hidaka foresees the day when the loading and unloading of cargo and other heavy deck work will be carried out by robots controlled by a supervisor's voice. But he does not see this leading to giant ships with only one human on board -- "a terribly lonely prospect."
"Actually, you will still need some crew for maintenance. But no one needs to stay in a hot engine room any more. Someone would merely have to go down if instruments reveal something wrong."
The Sumitomo official foresees no problem with seamen's unions: "These days fewer and fewer men want to go to sea. And no one wants to do the heavy work seamen of the past were required to do."
New applications for voice recognition are emerging all the time. Sumitomo officials say they know of no one else working on the shipboard application of voice recognition technology, as they are doing, but this technology itself is becoming standard, with a wide variety of applications. Several Japanese electronics manufacturers are marketing microwave ovens that can be told verbally what to do. Some can also talk back to the cook.
Sharp Corporation is marketing a "smart" voice synthesizer calculator that reports its answers in a "secretary-like" tone. Company engineers have completed basic development of a system allowing users to talke to their machines, instead of using a keyboard.
But the technology isn't available yet enabling calculators to respond to just any voice -- users will still have to program their voice patterns into the computer first.
The company is developing a hole range of "intelligent" machines. These include a voice-operated typewriter," raising the dreary prospect of secretary-less offices.