Sibanye said in December it would buy Lonmin in an all-share deal that is scheduled to close in the second half of the year, although it still requires approval from both companies’ shareholders and South African regulators. File Photo: IOL

A few weeks ago, we woke up to the news that 21 people died in the Sibanye gold mines. 

This is approximately 50% of all fatalities in South African mines this year. Mining fatalities have dropped from 290 in 2000 to 82 in 2017. The sad reality is that despite these improvements, our mines have not reached the safety levels that our country deserves. 

The mining industry is still stuck in the first and the second industrial revolutions. The first industrial revolution gave us mechanised means of production. The second industrial revolution gave us the assembly line and electricity, while the third gave us electronics and is driven by the semiconductor industry. 

Now the fourth industrial revolution is automating production at such a rapid pace that human beings are increasingly being rendered irrelevant in the workforce. The fourth industrial revolution is driven by advances in artificial intelligence, blockchain technology and biotechnology. If we are to measure the industry’s citizenship in the fourth industrial revolution by how many semiconductor devices – i.e. phones, computers, intelligent robots – are used for production, then the mining industry is lagging behind other industries such the automotive industry. 

To understand the slow pace of the advancement to the fourth industrial revolution by the mining industry, we need to understand its political economy. In this regard, mining companies acquire mining rights from our Department of Mineral Resources. A mining licence is a right to mine a particular mineral at a particular location for a particular period. 

Gold and platinum companies strengthened on the JSE as the rand reached a two-year low against the US dollar after the country slipped into a technical recession. Photo: Bloomberg

To get this licence the mining company must do an environmental impact assessment as well as consult with the local community. These companies then put in the mining infrastructure, employ people and operate the mine. The pact the government reaches with these companies is that mining companies employ people, pay taxes and pay royalties to the government. 

In game theory, which is a mathematical field that was popularised in the movie The Beautiful Mind, there is a concept called a “zero-sum game”. This concept means that the gain by one party is always a loss to the other party. The mining industry is a zero-sum game because the gain of minerals by these companies is necessarily a loss to the minerals balance sheet of a country. 

What the government hopes is that the loss of mineral resources by a country is compensated by employment, taxes and royalties. The other reality is that employment relations in the mining industry have not changed much in the last 100 years. Similar to 100 years ago, the wages in the mining industry remain low and the

work environment is not yet 100% safe. Now why has this industry not invested in the technologies of the fourth industrial revolution? One reason is that the mining environment, especially in deep mines, is hostile to these technologies. The temperatures, humidity and noise levels are very high. So a semiconductor device such as an artificial intelligence-powered robot does not last. 

One thing that is crucial in semiconductor-based technologies is temperature control. Our computers have to be cooled down continuously by internal fans, otherwise they will melt. Data centres consume large amounts of energy because they have to be cooled down. When we put such semiconductor devices in mines where temperatures can rise up to 55°C, the amount of energy needed to cool them down is high and the relevant technology is not yet available. 

The second reason why the mining industry has not moved fast enough towards the fourth industrial revolution is humidity. In metallurgical engineering, we learn that humidity causes materials to rust quickly. We also learn that humidity makes devices unpredictable because humidity levels influence the performance of machines. 

FILE PHOTO: A truck arrives to ferry excavated gold, copper and zinc ore from the main mining pit at the Bisha Mining Share Company in Eritrea. Picture: Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

The third reason is that the environment underground is messy and therefore a robot that has been designed to operate on a factory floor cannot work very well underground. This is because considerably more resources have been invested in factory robots than in underground robots. The fourth reason is because the sensors that are needed to power these robots are designed for the over the surface environment rather than the underground environment.

Given all these limitations, how do we reconcile mining and the fourth industrial revolution? Given the pact that government makes with companies, how do we handle the fact that the fourth industrial revolution will decimate employment? How do we reconfigure taxation, given the fact that the mining industry is an extractive industry? How do we deploy this technology to ensure that we reach zero fatality rates as a matter of course within the next five years? To attempt to answer these questions, we need to understand how the fourth industrial revolution is generally implemented in the mining industry. 

The ways in which the fourth industrial revolution is implemented are through processes, systems and infrastructure. In this regard, this industry needs to deploy processes and systems to monitor the movement of people, machines, rocks and slopes underground. The technology of the first industrial revolution gave us tools to analyse the movement of rocks through the work of the Russian engineer Stephen Timoshenko. 

We can integrate this technology with artificial intelligence. The cameras that are deployed underground should be augmented with artificial intelligence so that they can predict movements of people, slopes and vehicles to protect lives and increase productivity.

The energy consumption should be reduced by deploying energy-harvesting technology underground. The vehicles underground must be autonomous, intelligent and connected to other vehicles, through the internet of-things technology, to minimise accidents and maximise production. The reduction of people in the mines will result in less tax collection from this sector. 

This will increase social burden, which will be borne by society and the government. A special tax regime specifically for extractive industries will have to be developed. Currently mining companies pay corporate taxes and royalties to the government and the important question is whether these are enough. We need to invest in our educational institutions to develop technologies suitable for underground mining as well as understand the psychology of people working with automated machines of the fourth industrial age.

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Johannesburg, as well as the co-author of the book ‘Condition Monitoring Using Computational Intelligence’. He writes in his personal capacity.

The Sunday Independent