“Robots are going to be taking away our jobs.”
This was what my nine-year-old son was told by a classmate at school recently after the local newspaper ran an article on my husband, who is undertaking a Nuffield Australia Farming scholarship this year, studying robotics and its applications for the horticulture industry.
This school yard statement is indicative of the sentiment in our rural community around the topic of robotics and automation in agriculture.
It is a valid and widespread concern among the broader agricultural industry and the world at large.
Predictions are that up to 50 per cent of today’s jobs are at risk of being lost to automation.
Robotics promises to be one of the most exciting and disruptive technologies of the 21st century, with huge implications for farming labour forces, whilst promising gains in productivity.
For example, Japanese company Spread announced last year that robots will carry out all but one of the tasks required to grow tens of thousands of lettuces each day in its indoor automated farm.
Closer to home, Australian company Fastbrick Robotics has developed a robot that can lay 1000 standard bricks in one hour – a task that would take two human bricklayers the better part of a day or longer to complete.
The thing is, automation isn’t new. Tractors replaced the horse in the 1940s and GPS auto steer is now a standard feature in almost every new tractor. Smart phones are now carried in the shirt pockets of most Australian farmers.
It is a recurring pattern, repeated over time: as technology improves, it reduces the amount of labor required to achieve the same output.
So far, this phenomenon hasn’t produced extreme unemployment because automation can create jobs as well as replace them.
However, the fear is that in today’s world, the technology will become so advanced that there won’t be anything left for humans to do. Instead of merely transforming work, technology might begin to eliminate it.
In my view, this is an extreme and rather gloomy outlook on the future. There is much more to be considered.
For example, thanks to my husband’s studies, I’m now familiar with the concept of ‘augmentation’. Augmentation in ‘ordinary speak’ is the idea of maximising the strengths of humans and our ability to navigate unpredictable scenarios, with the strengths of machines and their non-human abilities such as infinite access to information, data collection, infrared vision and GPS mapping.
The technology around robotics and artificial intelligence will continue to improve – the challenge is how to ensure jobs and living in regional Australia improves too.
It is exciting to contemplate the possibilities for farming when many hours in the day are freed up by the automation of repetitive, time consuming tasks.
Agriculture will not be immune to job losses from automation, however due to the practicalities of robots operating in difficult environments such as paddocks, the industry may be afforded a little more time to structure a robust framework for the inevitable changes automation will bring.
Our regional and rural areas need to embrace innovation and creativity. These skills will become imperative in job creation, upskilling and reskilling our local workforces.
People, not robots, will be responsible for creating the opportunities to keep our communities in meaningful and well-paid work.
To ensure a positive outcome from mass automation, the agricultural industry must develop a planned and considered response through education and smart policy creation in this arena. Today. Now.
- Mareeba fruit grower and Queensland Rural Women’s Award finalist, Jess Fealy