Australia is the biggest automation user in the world, a leading robotics engineer has argued. But while such automation is having enormous productivity benefits it is also threatening to increase income inequality and “decimate” regional areas.
University of Sydney mechatronic engineering Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte spoke to the ALERA conference on Friday (May 27) to point out that automation was already having significant impacts on Australia in resources, maritime and agricultural industries.
“Australia is arguably the biggest user of automation tech in the world,” he said, noting there was more autonomous driving going on in Australia than in California, or even the rest of the world put together.
The principle reason for that was Australia’s big industries used big equipment that was highly amenable to automation – “indeed I automated most of them”.
Durrant-Whyte designed and implemented Patricks stevedores’ automation system in Port Brisbane in 2007, a system recently expanded to Port Botany in April and saw 700 jobs cut to 200.
The system meant almost the whole of Brisbane’s container terminal was now “completely run from Sydney”. That allowed for much better safety, maintenance, fuel efficiency, and speed in unloading ships – resulting in an “enormous impact on productivity to the whole supply chain”.
Durrant-Whyte was also responsible for automating mines in Western Australia – involving hundreds of autonomous trucks and drills. He said Rio Tinto now ran 14 mines in the Pilbara, six in the Hunter Valley, three in Mongolia, and four in the US all from “a single room in Brisbane”.
And the technological wave was not stopping – Durrant-Whyte’s next job is automating agriculture. Autonomous weeding robots are already in place, using cameras to identify and spray weeds one by one.
Automation to hollow out middle class, lead to polarisation
Durrant-Whyte, who also chairs the NSW Government’s innovation and productivity council, said this automation was having a “profound” impact on existing jobs and regional workforces.
A now well-reported 2013 study by Durrant-Whyte’s students, Drs Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne, estimated automation would impact 40% of jobs over the next 10-15 years.
While Durrant-Whyte stressed automation would give rise to new jobs as well as replace them, he said the “really scary picture” was the impact it would have on the polarisation of the workforce.
The new jobs market arising from automation was seeing big demand for highly qualified people – managers and professionals – and big demand for lower-skilled people – the services sector (“because if there’s one thing we can’t automate it’s a waitress”). But for the workers in the middle – truck drivers, bank analysts etc – “they’re done”.
Durrant-Whyte said the world was already seeing the effects of this polarisation in the form of unemployed graduates qualified for jobs that no longer existed and the rise of new on-demand services, ranging from cyclists delivering food to taking your clothes to the laundry, that were replacing those middle jobs.
“That’s what technology is doing that’s different from previous industrial revolutions,” Durrant-Whyte said. “And I do think that this is very, very concerning because it really does show the type of inequalities on a global scale that are going on.” He said this polarisation hadn’t quite hit Australia yet but warned “it is heading that way without any doubt at all”.
Future jobs concentrating in urban areas
Automation also threatened to radically re-structure the country geographically.
In stark contrast to predictions that telecommunications would allow everyone to work wherever they wanted, Durrant-Whyte said automation was in fact concentrating jobs in “geographically sealed areas” – mostly big cities and central business districts.
Rather than working from the beach, workers were meeting in the same CBD locations or coffees shops to exchange ideas and technology.
“’Future skills’ is about building concentrations where people want to come to,” he said. “You provide a hub – it starts growing.”
On the other hand it was “very hard” to see where the new jobs would be in places like western Sydney which had “no hub to create jobs”.
It also meant regional Australia – “which is already decimated” – was going to be even harder hit since automation was replacing many primary industry jobs. In particular, Durrant-Whyte singled out Adelaide – the “canary in the coal mine” – as “sub-critical in terms of future jobs”.
With “points of gravity” predominantly found in urban areas, Durrant-Whyte said it was physical infrastructure such as high-speed rail that would drives the skills market and connect regional Australia with the jobs of the future.
Not about tech skills, it’s about creative application of tech
Durrant-Whyte also called out educators’ and politicians’ focus on STEM skills – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – to provide the jobs of the future, saying STEM graduates were not getting jobs in that area.
“We have enough people who can do STEM … we don’t have enough people who can apply STEM in a useful way in the workplace,” he said.
He concluded that automation’s impact on Australia was “very profound…much more than other places”. “If we don’t solve it we’re going to be in dire straits in this country.”
Written by Workforce editor David Marin-Guzman
(This story first ran in Workforce Daily, 6 June, 2016)
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