WHEN you inform a roomful of farmers and agricultural professionals they may be redundant in as little as two decades, they tend to put down their forks and pay attention.
Speaking at the Australian Farm Institute (AFI), Digital Farmers 2018 conference gala dinner, the previous AFI executive director and current Australian Competition and Consumer Commission deputy chairman Mick Keogh said arguments had been made, the world is entering a fourth industrial revolution, one with the potential to not only displace workers from manual jobs, but also from a wide range of professions.
“One of the last major initiatives of the Obama presidency was to commission a number of detailed reviews,” he said.
“Those reviews concluded the implications of these technologies are only just starting to become apparent and reported some projections that suggest up to 50 per cent of current occupations are likely to be either partially or wholly replaced by machines with cognitive intelligence over the next two decades.
“Numerous examples were cited throughout these reports of robotic technology coupled with advanced computer processing capacity capable of “machine learning”, which have achieved performance levels that are superior to human practitioners.”
Mr Keogh said like previous revolutions predicated on new technologies such as the development of steam engines, electricity and the computer, the fourth revolution is being facilitated by the rapid development of data storage and processing capacity.
This, he said, in combination with telecommunications, machine learning, sensors, robotics and automation had implications for virtually every sector of the global economy, including agriculture.
“The scale and scope of intelligent automation means it will impact much more widely and rapidly than the past three revolutions,” he said.
“It has the potential to not only displace workers from manual jobs, but also to displace workers from a wide range of professions.
“There is no doubt that Australian agriculture is facing an era of unprecedented technological change,” he said.
“A case could be made that humans will become largely redundant in the sector in the future.”
Mr Keogh said due to the rate of development of monitoring technology, many systems are rapidly falling in cost.
“Within a decade it will be economically feasible to digitally monitor most, if not all, the factors of production,” he said.
Mr Keogh warned the conversation in agriculture should not be limited to the short-term implications.
“I think it would be strategically irresponsible to limit our consideration to this time-frame,” he said.
“People currently thinking about a career in agriculture, especially as professionals and managers, are contemplating a five to 10-year intensive learning and training period.
“This means that our agricultural education and training systems already need to be equipping industry entrants for the work environment they will experience a decade into the future.”
Mr Keogh said he believed much of the technical learning in disciplines such as chemistry, agronomy and animal physiology will be of decreasing value.
“The ubiquity of Google and other search engines means that all of this information is instantly and universally available and there is no longer a need to commit it to memory,” he said.
“As intelligent automation systems develop, relevant technical information will simply be coded into software systems and incorporated into the outputs provided to operators.”
Mr Keogh said machine learning would also overcome the need for a detailed technical understanding.
“By way of evidence you just need to consider how many current car drivers know how their car engine works, or how to fix it in the event of a breakdown,” he said.
Mr Keogh said it would be more important to have access to skilled personnel who could fix a computer system or ensure data is seamlessly transferred.
“Having either staff or service providers available with these skills will better equip any agricultural businesses to transition towards the increased application of intelligent automation that is inevitable in the future,” he said.
Mr Keogh said the “so-called” soft or people skills will become significantly more important for managers of agricultural businesses in the future.
“At the high-skill and managerial end of the agricultural workforce it seems there will be an increasing trend towards the use of specialist service providers and professional contractors,” he said.
“With the business manager acting as co-ordinator, rather than a supplier, of these skills to the business.
“The critical skills needed by future agricultural business managers are therefore going to be people and communication skills.”
Mr Keogh ended his speech by calling on agriculture to embrace change and seek to benefit from it.
“The most logical response for the agricultural sector in Australia is to gain as many insights as possible from the experience of other sectors of the economy,’’ he said.
“Humans will certainly become redundant from some of the tasks and roles.
“But there will be a lot more redundancies if the sector fails to embrace the opportunities for improved global competitiveness that intelligent automation is offering.”