Op Ed: Here's what the industrialized world could look like in 10 years

  • Silverlinings founder Steve Saunders was granted special access to Tianjin Port in China in September

  • There he found a facility light years ahead of similar ports in the U.S.

  • Silverlinings wants cloud players to show, not tell, us about new applications, so expect more on-site coverage in 2024

If you want to know what the industrialized world will look like in 10 years, you need to take a trip to Tianjin port in northeastern China.  

I visited Tianjin in September this year. It took me two planes and 24 hours to get there, but when I arrived, I felt like I’d stepped out of a time-machine and into the future.  

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It was the first time I’ve seen first hand AI, cloud, 5G and robotics all come together at scale – industrial scale, that is – and the effect on me and the rest of the team from Silverlinings was profound. For the first twenty minutes we just stood gawping at the heavy-industry, heavy-metal, robot ballet taking place in front of us.  

Tianjin Port doesn’t usually let media into its facility, but it gave Silverlinings special dispensation to not only to visit the site, but to film it. (Silverlinings will be premiering our professionally produced full video documentary about Tianjin port later this week.)

What you won’t see in the video are any human beings. That’s because there aren’t any on the quayside. A handful of operators remotely control the bridges (regular non-port folk call them cranes) using 5G from a safe, secure dispatch center – and the Level 4 autonomous trucks run themselves, using artificial intelligence.  

Building the port of the future

The port connects Northeast Asia with central and Western Asia. It's the maritime gateway to Beijing and an important staging post on the watery bit of the Silk Road. It’s an absolutely huge facility, one of the 10 largest ports in the world, handling 20 million containers a year.  

In 2020, Tianjin Port, Huawei and China Mobile jointly established a 5G+ Smart Port Task Force to work on automating the port’s operations – something they managed to do in less than two years (!) including developing the fleet of 40-ton autonomous trucks, because they weren’t available from any automotive manufacturers.  

Enabling automation has produced dramatic savings. Tianjin Port said its total cost of ownership is 30% less compared with traditional container terminals on the same coastline. It also said it has cut energy consumption by more than 17%.  

It’s not especially surprising to find this kind of advanced technology being rolled out in China ahead of other parts of the world. Infrastructure of all kinds is kind of China’s thing, after all. But it’s quite shocking to see how far it is ahead of the U.S.  

A World Bank assessment of 351 container ports around the world ranks The Port of Los Angeles at 328, behind Togo, due to its anarchic set up (it’s known for dropping containers on local residents’ cars) and jaw-dropping inability to do port stuff in general.  

A digital upgrade has improved matters, according to the Port of LA, allowing shippers to track 70% of the containers it handles (Aka 70% of the time it works all the time). This is fantastic (yay) unless your shipment is one of the remaining 30%, which could be anywhere, really (shrug).  

Clearly, if the U.S. wants to be a competitive force in the global economy it needs to do better than this. But will it?  

Back to Tianjin. Silverlinings will be doing a lot more of this type of in-person reportage in 2024. It’s my belief that this is essential if we are to provide our audience of cloud network architects with pragmatic information about the state of the art of cloud technology. The alternative – taking vendors’ word for what’s happening, by rewriting their press releases or publishing their internally approved, pasteurized takes on cloud topics – is going to end badly when the hype cycle around cloud performs another one of its inversion loops.  

So, Silverlinings is now officially in “don’t tell me, show me” territory.  

Top of my list for the live and in person reporting treatment is mining, a $2 trillion industry which is being totally revolutionized by cloud, automation, AI and 5G. Getting mine owners to give me access to one of their sites has proved to be a struggle in 2023, but Ericsson’s Alastair Glover has offered to help sort this out for us in 2024 and his LinkedIn profile says he’s dynamic and motivated, so I’m feeling pretty good about our chances (no pressure Alastair!).