From the Muscle Based Economy to the Brain Based Economy

Note: A version of this post originally appeared in spanish in the Chilean daily El Mercurio with the title De la economía de los músculos a la economía de la mente.

Michael Bloomberg used his commencement address at the University of Michigan’s to tell graduates a stark truth: “For the first time in human history, the majority of people in the developed world are being asked to make a living with their minds, rather than their muscles.”

He continued:

For 3,000 years, humankind had an economy based on farming: Till the soil, plant the seed, harvest the crop. It was hard to do, but fairly easy to learn. Then, for 300 years, we had an economy based on industry: Mold the parts, turn the crank, assemble the product. This was hard to do, but also fairly easy to learn.

Now, we have an economy based on information: Acquire the knowledge, apply the analytics and use your creativity. This is hard to do and hard to learn, and even once you’ve mastered it, you have to start learning all over again, pretty much every day.

In Chile, and much of the developing world, this change has already started, but it hasn’t hit nearly as hard as it has in the US or Europe. But it’s coming. And it’s coming fast to an industry that’s incredibly important to Chile: mining. Chile produces more than 30% of the world’s copper,  and nearly half  of the government budget comes from copper mining. Mining is one of the most important employment sectors and employs tens of thousands of workers, many in dangerous, but high paying jobs relative to other options.

Although this change hasn’t really come to Chile yet, if we look abroad, the mining industry is already in the process of changing from muscle based work to mind based work.

In October, the mining giant Rio Tinto replaced all of its heavy mining trucks at two large mines with trucks operated remotely from their operations center in Perth, 1200 kilometers (750 miles) away. That would be like having a control center in New York controlling trucks in Chicago. Or a Santiago office controlling mining trucks in Antofagasta.

These trucks work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, without truck drivers who need to use the bathroom, have lunch or get into accidents. Mining experts believe that each truck can work 500 additional hours a year.

As the company’s spokesman put it:

“We have taken away a very high risk role, where employees are exposed to fatigue. It is quite challenging to get repeatability out of a human, one of the advantages we have had with autonomous haulage particularly in the truck fleet we notice we are getting consistency in terms of the way the machines are operating.

One of the biggest costs we have got it maintaining mobile assets, so we spend a lot of time on our operator training, education. So, there is obvious capital savings, in terms of setting up camps, flying people to site, there is less people so there is less operating costs, but there are some costs that come into running the system and maintenance of the system as well.”

Their goal is to have robots and semi autonomous machines in as many places as possible, eventually having the entire supply chain “from pit to port” controlled from Perth 1200km away from the mine.

Other companies like BHP Billiton are following Rio Tinto’s example, experimenting with new technology in other Australian mines.

So what does change in Australia have to do with developing countries, specifically Chile? Because Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton own dozens of mines abroad, including Minera Escondida, the world’s largest copper mine. And if they’re trying these technologies in Australia, they’re clearly going to come to Chile and the rest of the developing world.

So what’s Chile doing about this? From what I’ve seen, not much. Politicians and citizens have been talking about free, quality university education for all, while not a bad idea, is way too late to retrain the vast majority of students how to think, change and get up to speed on new trends once they’re already 18-22.

If you want to learn how to work with your mind instead of your muscles, you need to start very young, learning to be creative, trying new things. This mentality is very different from the mentality that the vast majority of schools, universities and large companies are teaching: execute as many tasks as possible, rather than evaluate and analyze the data and propose solutions.

The real battle is just getting started in the developing world and its already well undeway in more developed economies. In Chile, it’s obvious that the change from muscles to mind is coming. The government and the vast majority of citizens are proposing solutions that attempt to solve problems of the past and not necesiarally focusing on solutions that make sense for our future.

We should be demanding that politicians start teaching children from a young age about the new reality they’ll find when they leave school and start to work. We should also be teaching people who are already in the workforce these new skills they’ll need to be a good, successful employee in the future. Things like always be learning, trying new things, and proposing new solutions.

If we start now, we have the potential to start to make changes before it becomes a massive problem. It’s another place where developing countries can take the lead and potentially be world leaders, instead of taking a reactive attitude and trying to make retroactive changes that likely won’t work.