Robots of the North

If you look at the photo of the 1956 graduating class on the wall at F.H. Collins, there is just one boy beside 10 girls.

If you look at the photo of the 1956 graduating class on the wall at F.H. Collins, there is just one boy beside 10 girls. A member of the Class of ‘56 joked to me recently that all the boys quit school to make big money working up and down the newly opened Alaska Highway, where demand was high for mechanics, drivers and miners.

Good blue-collar jobs driving truck or operating mining equipment have allowed generations of Yukoners to pursue middle-class lifestyles. At the same time, a host of white-collar occupations from finance to administration opened career opportunities for Yukoners who couldn’t be trusted at the controls of a D9 Cat.

Another good thing about these jobs was that they were very difficult to automate or outsource to Asia, unlike many blue-collar jobs in the manufacturing plants of Ontario. You can’t drive a mining truck in a Yukon pit if you’re living in Mumbai.

Until now, that is.

This is the second in a series of columns looking at “big picture” technological shifts. Today’s topic is robots and drones, and their potential impact on the North.

We’re not talking about robots like C3PO in Star Wars. Instead, think of robotic mining trucks driving themselves from pit to mill without ever calling in sick or going on strike. Or exploration drones buzzing over Yukon mineral formations under the control of pilots in Alabama or Hanoi.

You might laugh at the idea of the robot mining truck. A friend in Australia has seen one, however, and told me they drove so precisely that they were rutting the road. An algorithm to introduce human-like weaving had to be introduced to spread the traffic over the pavement.

As for drones, Amazon and Domino’s Pizza are both experimenting with flying delivery drones. While these still may be in the publicity stunt stage, one can see where this is heading. Google has recently invested billions in a string of acquisitions around robots, drones and remote sensing technologies.

This is not just a blue-collar phenomenon. A lot of those white collar jobs in finance and administration are disappearing too.

The typing pool is already history. The days are numbered for finance people who process purchase orders and match invoices and payments. They aren’t needed when employees are using a web-based procurement platform or corporate purchasing cards.

In human resources departments, computers are pre-scanning resumes or tracking vacation days and benefits. Even lawyers are feeling the pinch, as firms outsource basic legal activities to India and use “electronic discovery” technologies to read thousands of pages of documents for evidence instead of making recent law graduates work all night.

As these technologies mature, the pressure to use them will be highest in remote locations where high labour costs and extreme weather make it harder to deploy human workers.

So what does this mean for the Yukon? It’s a classic case where economists can avoid coming to a conclusion by citing a range of pros and cons.

For the most affected occupations, one can already see the impact. Repeatable tasks like driving a mining truck on a prescribed route or matching invoices can already be done by robots. Machines are also getting more reliable, and require fewer people to maintain them. Their capabilities will keep growing as sensors and control technologies get better and cheaper.

However, the shift will also create many opportunities just as the replacement of the horse-drawn carriage by the automobile created huge numbers of jobs unknown in 1880.

If you’re a current student at F.H. Collins, you might be wise to sign up for Drone Repair 12 right away.

The impact on the economy of the North is especially hard to predict. Will mining companies in 50 years operate mines in Nunavut like they would on a space asteroid, with zero local staff? Or will living in the North become even more attractive as drones do the hard work outside in -40°C (assuming Silicon Valley engineers figure out how to make them work in Yukon weather)?

Perhaps an enterprising Yukoner will invent the first driveway-shovelling drone and get rich.

People can debate whether these developments are “good” or “bad.” Regardless of your point of view, it seems likely that it is inevitable that we will have a lot more drones and robots in our future. It is probably also true that this trend will affect everyone, although some will be winners and others losers.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. You can follow him on Channel 9’s Yukonomist show or Twitter @hallidaykeith