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An A.I.-Driven ‘Mayflower’ Will Cross the Atlantic Next Year

The autonomous vessel’s launch, originally scheduled to mark the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth, was delayed by the pandemic

The Mayflower Autonomous Ship's debut in Plymouth, England, is one of many events marking the 400th anniversary of the original Mayflower's 1620 journey. (Photo by Matthew Horwood / Getty Images)
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In September 1620, a wooden ship called the Mayflower departed Plymouth, England, carrying 102 passengers across the Atlantic on a history-making voyage.

This week, another Mayflower debuted at the same port—but unlike its predecessor, the new vessel has no human crew, passengers or captain, reports Jill Lawless for the Associated Press. Created by marine research organization ProMare and tech company IBM, the modern ship is piloted entirely by artificial intelligence (A.I.). Soon, it will embark for Cape Cod, Massachusetts, powered by the sun and wind as it undertakes a pioneering research expedition.

Originally slated to complete its trip this year, the A.I.-driven Mayflower Autonomous Ship will undergo six months of trials before attempting a trans-Atlantic voyage in spring 2021. While at sea, the 50-foot-long double-outrigger will study such research topics as global warming, micro-plastic pollution and marine mammal conservation, per a statement.

Andy Stanford-Clark, chief technology officer for IBM U.K. and Ireland, tells CNBC’s Sam Shead that the ship’s A.I. captain relies on computer vision, automation software and Watson technology. Though human operators set the Mayflower’s destination, A.I. is responsible for identifying the best route, as determined by factors including ocean traffic, currents and the weather.

Mayflower Autonomous Ship
The Mayflower Autonomous Ship will study the effects of global warming, micro-plastic pollution and marine mammal conservation, among other research topics. (Tom Barnes / IBM)

“Able to scan the horizon for possible hazards, make informed decisions and change its course based on a fusion of live data, the Mayflower Autonomous Ship has more in common with a modern bank than its 17th-century namesake,” says Stanford-Clark in the statement.

The autonomous vessel’s voyage is one of the many Mayflower 400th anniversary celebrations delayed or altered by the Covid-19 pandemic. Across the U.K. and the U.S., commemorations are also undergoing a shift as many organizations seek to include Indigenous history and perspectives in their telling of the event, as Farah Nayeri reported for the New York Times earlier this year. New exhibitions in Plymouth, England and at the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum in Massachusetts, as well as an online show originally slated to traverse the U.S., explore this history in detail.

When a group of British Puritans arrived in North America in 1620, they encountered the Wampanoag settlement of Patuxet, which they later renamed Plymouth, Massachusetts. The Wampanoag tribe has lived in the region for at least 12,000 years.

As Wampanoag historian Paula Peters, who helped curate the Plymouth, England, show, tells Time magazine’s Suyin Haynes, much of what American children learn about the Mayflower is incorrect. For one, the ship’s arrival in 1620 was not the first encounter between Wampanoag and British people. Wampanoags had already had a “century of contact” with Europeans, as historian David Silverman told Smithsonian’s Claire Bugos last year.

“Quite honestly, the Mayflower story can’t be told without the inclusion of the Wampanoag perspective,” Peters says.

Two men in period costume, with blue feathers in their caps, speak in front of a neoclassical square archway that marks the spot where the Pilgrims set off for America, 400 years ago
A man in a historical costume speaks from the steps where the Pilgrims are believed to have boarded the Mayflower in Plymouth, England. (Photo by Matthew Horwood / Getty Images)

For the half-century after the arrival of the Mayflower, continued colonial expansion, disease and—eventually—warfare strained relations between the Wampanoag and the British. The story of a peaceful “Thanksgiving” dinner celebrated between Wampanoag people and Pilgrims is a myth that overlooks the severe consequences of colonization, Silverman argued.

Contemporary Wampanoag leaders mark Thanksgiving with a counter-protest: Known as the National Day of Mourning, the event acknowledges the “genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the relentless assault on Native culture,” according to the United American Indians of New England.

In a statement, Raphael Aiden Sacks, a descendant of Mayflower crew member John Alden who has contributed to the Mayflower Autonomous Ship Project, says, “I certainly hope that the autonomous Mayflower embodies the best of the pilgrim journey and leaves behind the worst. Like the original, the new vessel represents innovation.”

He adds, “This new Mayflower is intended not only to make the voyage in an unprecedented way but also to help humanity be a little better—by collecting data that in the future will make a positive difference for the environment—without taking anything away from anyone else.”

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