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Time to let robots take care of your fields
Published on: Saturday, April 08, 2017

By Datuk Seri Panglima Wilfred Madius Tangau
The Malaysian delegation led by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has just arrived home from a fruitful five-day official visit to India.

Thirty-one memoranda of understanding (MoU) totalling US$ 36 billion (RM 159.7 bil) of investments were signed, economic relations between the two countries were strengthened and cooperative efforts in defence were explored.

One agenda of the visit was to attend the 7th Global Science and Innovation Advisory Council Meeting (GSIAC) in New Delhi. Chaired by the Prime Minister, GSIAC was established in 2011 and consists of several Malaysian ministers; the majority of the almost 40 members are captains of industry and renowned academicians from both the country and the globe.

The council, managed by Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology (MIGHT), is an opportunity for the members to deliberate ideas and strategies for Malaysia to advance in science and innovation.

Previous GSIAC meetings have revolved around green futures, smart communities, science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programmes, and the new economy. Part of the discourse held in London last year was on the role of science centres to promote STEM.

I took the opportunity to visit the UK National STEM Learning Centre located within the University of York campus.

Sir John Holman, founding director of the Centre himself, and a couple of senior staff received us and guided our visit. They explained the history of the Centre since 2004, its success that led to extensive branches in the country, its governance and collaboration with the Ministry of Education, Wellcome Trust, Gatsby Foundation and UK commercial behemoths.

I was most impressed with their conviction in STEM talent to prepare UK for the 21st Century knowledge based global economy. We want to emulate their model of supporting educators’ and technicians’ professional development in STEM subjects, to be an integral part of existing science centres. The first round of consultation between this York Centre and Malaysian officials has been held in the Academy of Sciences Malaysia, with plans to set up a centre locally to follow.

This year was my third time attending the council meeting. The discussion focused on the Digital and Bioeconomy in the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The Fourth Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0 is a collective term embracing a number of contemporary automation, data exchange and manufacturing technologies.

Emerging technologies include artificial intelligence (AI), nanotechnology, biotechnology, 3D printing, and the internet of things (IoT), to name a few.

Industry 4.0 has the potential to raise global income levels and improve the quality of life for populations around the world. At the same time I am most concerned about the economic repercussions of the digital economy.

Promoters of these technologies and urbanites would benefit the most. Youths are migrating from their rural communities to cities with attractive digital opportunities, leaving behind a devastating consequence on their agricultural sector.

The developed world had to turn to cheap migrant labour to sustain their plantations.

However, adverse social, economic and political effects have led the US and Europe for example, to use automation in farming through robotics, AI and Big Data.

In Malaysia, we need to find ways to incorporate the elements of Industry 4.0 in our approach to address challenges faced in the bio-based sector. Traditional manufacturing and service industries, and the rural hinterland would be dangerously left behind if we do not take heed of the possible technological revolution aftermath.

The oil palm and rubber plantations in Malaysia are over-reliant on foreign labour; furthermore productivity is still not at its peak. Just yesterday it was reported that our palm planters would face severe labour shortage, as field hands from Indonesia who harvest the crops are more attracted to increased employment opportunities at home.

It was also reported that nationwide, we have 5,229,739 hectares of oil palm cultivation, where close to a third of the production stems from Sabah. The lack of labourers in the fields would cause a cascade of problems – fertilisers are not utilised thus reducing yield, a dearth of harvesters that would ultimately cost our economy billions a year.

38,792 ha of rubber trees are left untapped due to unattractive prices of rubber and also shortages in labour.

We would lose out as the number two producer of palm oil and top producer of natural rubber globally if we continue to think that attracting foreign labour is the only mean to sustain these plantation industries.

Like the developed world, we can explore automation in our farms.

Semi or fully autonomous robotics systems can be built to harvest crops or carry out rubber tapping.

Japan’s shrinking agricultural sector, caused by an ageing population, accelerated the use of robots in farming lettuce, picking strawberries and tomatoes.

A Japanese lettuce producer is now using industrial robots to carry out almost all the tasks required to grow lettuces, from transplanting of young seedlings to larger spaces, to harvesting them. This innovation is expected to boost lettuce production from 21,000 to 50,000 a day, and within five years, to half a million a day!

In fact, the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) is organising the International Competition on Oil Palm Mechanisation.

They are offering a grand prize of US$ 1 mil (RM 4.44 mil) in search for mechanisation innovations for field operations in oil palm plantations.

At the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, we are also mobilising our technological capabilities in the digitalisation of plantation, where our agencies and research institutes such as Bioeconomy Corporation, MIMOS, SIRIM and the Malaysian Remote Sensing Agency are called in for a series of roundtable discussion with the industry, Innovators Dynamic, chaired by myself.

Concurrently, in working together nationwide to solve this economic issue using technological means, we need to advocate trust and transparency in the process, where technological innovators would share their findings with the industry. Consumers of bioeconomy at home and abroad should be confident that our products are clean and green; it is possible though yet to actualise, for their whole production chain to be traced right back to the very source such as the tree, by applying Big Data and IoT.

Prime Minister closed the GSIAC meeting by noting that we need to give our young ones free rein in their innate imagination and curiousity. As we attempt to automate our fields, we would also pursue quality STEM education for our children, such as the role of the STEM Learning Centre, to prepare them for tomorrow’s jobs.

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