Watch out – the Fourth Industrial Revolution is coming for you!

I followed the World Economic Forum’s recent 2016 Annual Meeting in Davos closely because of the main theme of this year’s gathering: The Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Change is on the agenda, and the agriculture sector is not going to be immune to this change.

To date, we’ve seen how the use of steam, water and mechanical equipment changed the working class in the 18th Century – the First Industrial Revolution.

This was followed by the division of labour, electricity and mass production in the Second Industrial Revolution in the 19th Century. In the 20th Century, we saw the rise of electronics, IT and automated production with the Third Industrial Revolution.

Now, we’re on the brink of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, where the mechanical, digital, biological and human world are expected to see an assimilation that will give rise to ground-breaking changes that will change humankind and the world as we know it.

The result? New levels of unemployment driven by artificial intelligence. I already wrote about precision farming, and this is one of many signs that the Fourth Industrial Revolution has a firm foot in the door in the agriculture sector.

Another example is the world’s first ‘robot farm’ in Japan, where they’re filling labour shortages driven by the country’s rapidly ageing population by deploying robots to grow lettuce. The Guardian reports the robots will do everything from re-planting young seedlings to watering, trimming and harvesting crops. In the process they will boost production from 21 000 lettuces a day to 50 000.

The farm is said to improve efficiency and reduce labour costs by half. It uses LED lights to save energy and up to 98% of the water needed to grow the crops will be recycled.

Technology is also taking over human labour in other segments of the sector. Farmers Weekly in the UK reports that manufacturers of robotic milking and feeding systems anticipate half of all dairy cows in north-west Europe will be milked by robotic systems by 2025.

Gizmodo reports the future of farming is going to be all about robots. We’re going to see everything from scouting drones to robotic harvesters doing our work for us.

There are already machines picking strawberries with alarming speed and efficiency, automated hay mowers that are up to 25% more energy efficient, sowing robots for greenhouses, picking systems that can clear orange trees for as little or less than what human labour would cost – and, as Gizmodo says, none of these machines ever get tired.

I know most of these technologies are designed for developed countries where affordable labour is limited, but I can’t see why tech-savvy South African farmers wouldn’t use robots to reduce operating costs and improve efficiency.

Leopold Malan has more than 20 years’ experience in the IT sector, the majority of those years spent consulting and working within the financial services space. He currently heads up BrightRock’s integrated processing, systems and IT division.