Dethridge Memorial Address: From automation to autonomy - can the law keep up?

Author:Paul David
Position:Paul David QC BA (Hons) LLM (Cantab) Barrister, Eldon Chambers Auckland.
(2020) 34 A&NZ Mar LJ 1
The 46th Annual MLAANZ Conference
12 September 2019
Frank Stuart Dethridge Memorial Address
Pa ul D av id *
1 Introduction
I am delighted and h onoured to give this address dedicated to the memory of Frank Stewart Deth ridge. Frank
Dethridge was the senior partner at Mallesons, Sydney, who had the foresight to recognise the importance of
maritime law for our countries and take steps to establish this Association. In 1974 he called the first meeting of
those interested and an Australian association was formed. The development was noted in New Zealand and, with
Ian Mackay from P and I Services Wellington to the fore, New Zealand jo ined the Association a year later.
My involvement does not go that far back, but it does now seem a long time since I was persuaded by Brad Giles
to attend my first MLAANZ meeting in 1990 - Brad could be very persuasive! I would never have thought it likely
then, that, nearly 30 years later, I would give this address. Over the years the address has been given by a number
of leading lawyers on a wide range of topics of interest, and I feel very honoured that MLAANZ has asked me to
follow them.
Time does flow by quickly (and seems to accelerate) and I was surprised when I reflected on the subject I
eventually chose; this produced some sobering thoughts - those who attended the early meetings of MLAANZ in
the mid-1970s might have regarded some of the technological developments which are the starting poin t for this
address as pure science fiction, and I may not have to address the issues which I will talk about today in practice.
In keeping with the theme of this Conference my topic concerns developments in technology which many consider
are destined to change the face of maritime commerce and shipping operations most profoundly. Shipping and
trade, like other areas of human activity, are going through an ongoing revolution driven by the development of
digital technology, artificial intelligence or learning computers and robotics, which allows the creation of global
inter-connected computer systems. These systems exchange and analyse data and make decisions operating
physical things. This has been described as the fourth digital industrial revolution which is changing, and will
change society, more fundamentally than the earlier industrial revolutions which involved the invention o f steam
engines and electricity. Against this background of broad general change, the address will examine the issues
arising from the likely development of ships which are capable of operating without direct human intervention by
persons on boar d, whether as a result of remote control by o n shore controllers, or by autonomous direction by
“intelligent” computer systems on board the ship (or a combination of those two systems). It is, however,
important to bear in mind that the change to ships (which fundamentally distur bs one’s general idea of a ‘ship’)
is part of much broader transformation in which highly integrated digital systems are being developed to organise
commercial activities, such as the carriage and transfer of goods.
The extract from Tennyson’s poem Locksley Hall, which is on your conference programme, was written in 1835.
It contains an extraordinary piece of romantic poetry and prophecy about international trade, in which the poet
anticipates the development of the carriage of goods by air.
* Paul David QC BA (Hons) LLM (Cantab) Barrister, Eldon Chambers Auckland.

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