BHP CEO: Just The Threat Of Robots Taking Jobs Makes People More Productive

Beware of the robots. Image: Jens Schlueter/Getty Images

The wave of robot replacements for people in industry is especially pronounced in the mining sector, where there are automated trains and trucks, and drones are used to investigate mining pits operated from capital cities hundreds of kilometres away.

Automation is one way mining companies are cutting costs and boosting tonnes.

Discussing the tech advances with PwC as part of its annual CEO Survey BHP Billiton boss Andrew Mackenzie said while there were some areas where automation fits nicely, just the threat of introducing robots can make people more productive.

“It’s amazing when you have the competition of automation how productive people who might be automated out of their job become,” he said.

“Not in a particularly nasty way, but when they see what’s possible and they see that their grey matter can be preserved how they can compete against automation.

“But there will be some areas, maybe not the ones that people think, that will automate very readily and others where we may choose not to because we get better improvements elsewhere.”

In Western Australia both Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton have developed control centres in Perth to run aspects of their iron ore operations over 1000km away.

The changes are transforming the nature of work in the sector. Instead of throwing on the high vis work-wear and living in mining camps these operators sit in an office in the CBD.

Last year The Economist published a piece which showed which jobs are most likely to be taken by robots and although it’s heavily skewed towards typists and telemarketers, in the resources sector it’s the jobs which can be done by robots and deliver improved productivity and safety outcomes which are most at risk.

In mining, roles that require human analysis are basically safe. But those that involve chemical analysis can increasingly be done by computers.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates said people don’t realise just how many jobs will soon be replaced by software bots.

“Software substitution, whether it’s for drivers or waiters or nurses …it’s progressing. …Technology over time will reduce demand for jobs, particularly at the lower end of skill set. …20 years from now, labour demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower. I don’t think people have that in their mental model,” he said.

In Australia the Federal Department of Industry’s chief economist Mark Cully in December said: “The challenges presented by increasing automation are not limited to low-skilled positions.”

“Robots are increasingly replicating the tasks of medium and high-skilled workers. Computers are programmed to diagnose illnesses faster than doctors, machines can analyse volumes of legal text in a fraction of the time that a solicitor can and a robot has even been appointed as director to an investment board.”

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