What giant robotic mining trucks have to do with development

Institute of Modern Art Brisbane
When I came across this fascinating piece on robotic mining trucks in Australia the connection to development was not self-evident right away.
But the longer I thought about it and the more appealing it seemed to write a blog post with ‘giant robotic mining trucks’ in the title, some interesting connections to the aid industry appeared. In fact, the article probably says more about technology, complexity and development than you would normally think, even if the aim of the article is to highlight the potential military use of the technology:
Iron mines are where mega-bots like these trucks are finding a home, but the Pentagon is also interested in the technology
I want to highlight three issues that I find particularly interesting and worth sharing/discussing:

1. Development and the rise of ‘big technology’
2. Development, complexity and the need for humans
3. Development and capacity building in other sectors & industries

Development and the rise of ‘big technology’

The article obviously links the robotic trucks to the interest of the Pentagon in similar projects, but as we are currently seeing in the emerging debate around unarmed aerial vehicles/drones, in a short while the, say, WFP will probably be interested in using the technology to deliver supplies in crisis zones. It is actually not difficult to imagine a convoy of ‘robotic’ vehicles plowing through the desert and being ‘protected’ by UAVs. There will be a discussion about the pros, the cons and the ethical dimensions, of course, but one thing I find important to point out is that big companies, with big ideas and big equipment are ready to enter the aid industry-and that comes at a price. While smaller organizations may find it difficult to find money to run a one-day workshop for local journalists on how to use aid data, mobile phones for disasters or smart phones for using social media, a lot of technological excitement will be created around big technology. Who doesn’t want to see the robotic WFP truck arriving in a remote village where people desperately wait for supplies? But big technology also needs critical commentators, because it is also possible that the technology that drives the robotic mining truck in this part of a country will be used as a CSR project stunt to drive supplies into remote corners in other parts of that country.

Development, complexity and the need for humans

As the article also points out, the technology is far from sophisticated yet. The trucks work on the ‘tedious’ mining site, but are unlikely to succeed in ‘smarter’, more complex terrains yet-especially if something or someone wants to stop them from moving around.
The complex challenges in development will require human intervention rather than simple remote supervision from the safe distance of a control room. But there is a bigger picture involved that the article does not address: Routine, manual tasks that can be executed by modern ‘robots’ will be outsourced to them sooner rather than later. The fully computerized warehouse, mining site or postal delivery route are not exactly the material of science fiction. It will take longer before these technologies are implemented in a development context which gives humans a bit more breathing space for gainful employment. But I also have a feeling that these developments may actually add to the supply-demand pressure on development jobs. If a truck driver is turned down at a mining site, maybe work for the WFP is his (yes, there is a gender/masculinity/class/educational dynamic involved) alternative? Will this drive down salaries in the development industry? Will development become more inclusive and more regular people (the infamous ‘taxpayer’ politicians like to talk about) will join the industry? Are we prepared for this? Should we…?

Development and capacity building in other sectors and industries
Which brings me to my final point: The rise of new, big technologies requires cooperation, exchange etc. with other industries and potentially unusual suspects. The growth of Engineers Without Borders is one example, but my feeling is that much more of these non-traditional interactions will be necessary in the future. To say it a bit more provocatively: Big technology and big companies will likely mean big money, too. We in academia, civil society, but also in larger traditional organizations, need to be aware that big technology is ‘creeping in’ and that it will be tried out if it is available. But development budgets are unlikely to grow and in many areas simply hiring more and different humans will not work as debates about ‘overheads’ and ‘efficiency’ continue to have an impact on daily operations. Cooperation with big technology seems necessary, but I personally do not have a silver bullet answer as to how this can be achieved with the biggest amount of sustainable, social change development impact (other than my standard response that more anthropologists will be needed and more qualitative research is necessary ;)!…

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