AI and Satellite Data Could Help End Slavery on the High Seas
Slavery is rampant on fishing vessels around the world. Just how rampant, though, is an open question, given the challenges of cataloging what happens onboard thousands of vessels that spend weeks out at a sea and move from port to port, including in countries with lax regulations.
A new study, though, aims to use satellite and machine learning to track ships that traffic laborers. The findings provide a conservative estimate that between 57,000 and 100,000 people were forced to labor on fishing vessels between 2012 and 2018. Though AI alone can’t end what the study calls a “humanitarian tragedy,” it can help start to penetrate the veil of secrecy around slave labor and end its practice on the high seas.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, uses data captured from the Automatic Identification System, a satellite tracking system used to monitor ships’ movements around the world. Not all ships use them all the time—the study notes that some turn them off to reportedly avoid piracy—but those that do can allow researchers to construct a fairly comprehensive web of where ships go, when, and how they behave. The scientists took that data (including when AIS was turned off) and compared it to known cases of ships that used forced labor and interviews with experts in trafficking to train a machine learning tool that could identify ships likely reliant on trafficked labor.