In Brief
  • Mining company Rio Tinto has deployed a fleet of 73 self-driving trucks that reportedly haul payloads at a cost 15 percent less than those operated by human drivers.
  • Mining is just one of many industries seeing humans replaced by automated systems, a trend that will likely lead to widespread unemployment in the future.

Non-Stop Production

The rapid advancement of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) is allowing more companies to seek out automation as a means of boosting production efficiency. Mining company Rio Tinto is one of the companies that’s turned to automation to accomplish that goal.

The company has recently deployed a fleet of 73 self-driving trucks to haul payloads non-stop. In addition to the trucks, they also have robotic, rock-drilling rigs plugging away at the topography. In the near future, Rio Tinto is looking to upgrade the trains that haul the ore to port to not only drive themselves but also have the ability to load and unload automatically.

Back in 2015, Rio Tinto made history by introducing remote-controlled haulers at some mines. While those vehicles didn’t require a driver to be physically present, there was a human component to successful navigation. As a logical progression from that technology, the company has managed to replace those humans with software in the newest equipment. The vehicles now operate completely autonomously using precision GPS and scan for obstacles using radar and lasers.

The company is reporting a 15 percent reduction in the cost of operating the automated trucks compared to those driven by humans. As hauling is among the largest costs to a mining operation, Rob Atkinson, Rio Tinto’s leader of productivity efforts, lauds this reduction. “We’re going to continue as aggressively as possible down this path,” he claims in an interview with MIT Technology Review.

Christian Sprogoe Photography
Photo credit: Christian Sprogoe Photography

Replacing People

The future impact of this move toward more automation is arguably the biggest concern facing modern society. Robots are quickly becoming better than humans at more and more tasks. Couple this with the declining cost of robotics, and there’s a significant financial incentive for companies to explore all the ways in which they can automate their operations.

At the outset of the proliferation of this new frontier in how the world does business, jobs requiring low-skilled workers (especially in developing nations) are particularly in danger of disruption. However, artificial intelligence is also rapidly advancing, causing even the most skilled workers to start to look over their shoulders for their electronic replacements.

United States President-elect Donald Trump’s promises to bring outsourced jobs back to the country were a major part of his campaign platform. However, experts assert that these plans are likely to be hampered by the likes of automation. Other experts say that even if policies are put in place to bring companies back to the U.S., the jobs they initially outsourced may not come back with them.

Automation is steadily taking over in areas like manufacturing and transportation, and it even has the potential to significantly cut into the number of available information technology (IT) positions as well. The world’s brightest minds are looking for ways to head off the potentially debilitating impact this could have on the world’s employment levels. While the White House is proposing greater access to education, many experts see a universal basic income as the only means to prevent unemployment-caused poverty. Whatever the answer, something must be done before all jobs are hauled away by automated systems.