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Mining firms turning to tech to boost safety, productivity

Mining companies are becoming increasingly receptive to new technologies as trends in automation and digitalization are expected to improve safety, productivity and lower costs, according to speakers at the Mines and Money Asia conference in Hong Kong.

Barrick Gold Corp. said it expects mining automation to drive production costs down by between 20% and 30% over the next five years, Chief Innovation Officer Michelle Ash told S&P Global Market Intelligence on the sidelines of the conference April 7.

"Artificial intelligence will change the way mining companies operate," she said, noting that mine workers as well as engineers, lawyers and accountants at mining companies will be affected.

Ash said mining automation is also helping the gold producer improve safety and productivity.

"It would fundamentally improve mine safety if we could take people out of the mine, which is a difficult environment for people," she said.

During a panel discussion on technological innovation in mining, Stephen Letwin, president and CEO of IAMGOLD Corp., told the audience that digitalization and automation technologies have significantly improved the company's safety record and productivity. "We are seeing transformational effects on our mines," he said.

However, the potential loss of jobs would be a significant issue for companies looking to harness technology's operational benefits, according to Letwin.

"The biggest challenge of adopting new technologies is the local community that is looking for employment, especially in developing countries," he said. "In west Africa, the last thing the local community wants to hear is automation."

Letwin said the company has been trying to introduce job training in mining towns and provide job opportunities in other industries, such as agriculture, in the face of community opposition to new technologies.

Ash said Barrick Gold is now focusing on "wealth creation" — helping people build up non-mining skills and investing in other industries to boost the local economy, instead of simply providing employment on mining sites.

"In the past, we focus on offering jobs, [and] paying royalties to governments to add value to local community. That's about to change," she said.

Ash added that more young people are interested in joining the mining industry because of automation technologies.

IAMGOLD is also funding primary and high schools and introducing new technologies to younger generations, according to Letwin.

"Many interesting changes will happen in the next 20 years on mining technologies," Ash said.