Acknowledging Mining’s Unsung Heroes: Practical steps for Mining Companies and Governments to Achieve a Just Artificial Intelligence Transition

15 Mar 2024 | By Ruvarashe Makonese
Ai Chip
15 Mar 2024 | By Ruvarashe Makonese


Picture a world where mining companies enjoy reduced costs of operation, increased efficiency, and continuous productivity, while their employees have the benefits of enhanced safety and less exposure to dangerous working conditions. Artificial Intelligence (AI) can bring about this reality.

With AI, there are endless possibilities. For example, AI and machine learning can be used to develop autonomous drills that can locate potential sites for mining, perform drilling activities, and input the drill log data into the system. Additionally, AI can sort and dispose of mineral waste. Workers can also be protected from dangerous underground conditions as machines are now able to examine the atmosphere, assess risks, send warnings, find areas of concern, and continue to work in dangerous situations. This is evidence of the simultaneous safety and productivity offered by AI in the industry. Several African mining companies are already using such technologies and integrating AI into their daily operations.

In that same world, however, workers who have given their time and efforts to growing the industry may be severely affected and left without jobs. Studies have shown that millions of employees’ roles could become redundant by 2030 due to the use of AI. In mining, workers with low and semi-skills, for instance, miners, operators, and divers, have been described as the “unsung heroes” of the mining sector as they have significantly aided in mining-dependent countries’ economic growth and development. If AI is doing it all, including the drilling and sorting of minerals, what happens to these workers who performed these activities before?

How can we ensure that these heroes are not left behind and are part of the future that they helped to create? The answer is a just AI transition. To achieve this just transition, mining companies and governments need to take practical steps to upskill and reskill potentially affected workers, ensuring that they are part of the future that they helped to create.

A background on the use of AI in the mining sector and the meaning of a just AI transition

Although there is a sudden increase in the use of AI amongst various sectors, it has been used in the mining sector for over a decade now, as evidenced by the use of autonomous trucks. For example, one of the earliest uses of autonomous mining vehicles was by the Rio Tinto Group at Australia’s Mine of the Future in 2008. The difference now is that AI is being used at a larger scale, finding application in different phases of the mining process including exploration, production drilling, and the act of mining itself, as explained above.

Those who were once in charge of these processes are therefore at risk of losing their jobs. This is where the concept of a just AI transition comes in. The term “just transition” is usually used in reference to the global energy transition, and it means that no one should be left nor pushed behind in the transition to low carbon economies. In the same way, I argue that no one should be left behind in the transition to the increased use of AI in mining workplaces. The term “just AI transition” has also been used by the writer Gordon LaForge, who argues that AI has the potential to “reinforce existing injustices and widen inequalities”.

How can this reinforcement of existing injustices and widening of inequalities due to the use of AI be avoided in the mining context? One practical way of doing so is transitioning by hiring within organisations.

Transitioning by hiring within organisations   

Although the increased use of AI is expected to cause job losses, mining companies still need workers that possess the “technical, human, and conceptual competencies” to use this AI equipment/machinery in the workplace. Consequently, as some jobs become redundant, others are created, hence the need to reskill those affected.

As stated above, the “unsung heroes” of the mining industry such as miners, operators and divers have low and semi-skills. These are therefore the first groups of people who are likely to be affected by technological changes such as AI, through for instance, retrenchments. Their position is worsened by the reality that they usually have no other skills other than mining, creating a dark future for them.

A practical way to brighten this future is by reskilling and upskilling the industry’s forgotten heroes. Here, contracts signed between host governments and mining companies become important, and this will be further explained below.

Instead of looking for employees who are skilled enough to operate new AI technologies externally, mining companies should focus on reskilling and upskilling the workers who would have lost their jobs due to the introduction of AI technologies. This would be a just way of transitioning.

Practical steps for host governments and mining companies

The main goal for most companies is to generate and maximise profit. As the reskilling and upskilling of workers costs money, these actions should not be voluntary decisions left to mining companies. The reskilling and upskilling of workers should be an obligation that is included in contracts between host governments and mining companies. There are several ways in which this can be achieved. One way could be through financially incentivising mining companies to do so, for instance, by trading-off the upskilling and reskilling of affected workers with reduced taxes.

However, host governments should not rely on incentives as the main way of shaping mining companies’ behaviours. With regard to the just AI transition, host governments  should make the reskilling and upskilling of certain groups of affected employees an obligation by requiring them to be a part of mining companies’ social impact assessment and action plans, without which mining licenses will not be granted. This will however depend on the level of importance and the corresponding political will that different governments will place on this idea of a just AI transition in their mining industries.

Artificial intelligence brings massive benefits for mining companies and their employees. However, it also opens room for injustices as it may result in the low and semi-skilled workers who have aided in the growth of the mining industry losing their jobs, thus negatively affecting their livelihoods. Governments and mining companies need to work together and protect these “unsung heroes” by driving a just AI transition that sees them also benefitting from, and being integrated in, the increased use of AI in mining.