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Farhad and Mike’s Week in Tech: Robots vs. Jobs

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While there has been a suggestion that raising wages could accelerate the automation of labor, restaurants like Eatsa, where robots make you quinoa, are not likely to usurp our salad-tossing ways soon. Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times

Each Saturday, Farhad Manjoo and Mike Isaac, technology reporters at The New York Times, review the week’s news, offering analysis and maybe a joke or two about the most important developments in the tech industry.

Mike: Good day, Farhad! I’m writing this week from sunny San Francisco, my old home and stomping grounds before I moved to New York. This morning I left my Airbnb and hopped in an Uber to get to work. The only thing missing was a hot glass of Soylent.

Farhad: Mike, you are clueless about this city — don’t you know that Soylent is best served cold?

Mike: Oh. Maybe I was thinking of Schmilk.

Some tech stuff happened this week: Reviews of Apple’s iPad Pro were released, and it seems like early testers gave it a resounding “meh.” More like iPad amateur, am I right?

Meanwhile, Facebook released Notify, a smartphone app that sends news alerts to you in the form of a handy-dandy notification on the lock screen of your phone, based on the news organizations you follow. Basically, it’s a worse version of Twitter. After using it for three hours, I turned notifications off, which basically means I hate it. Maybe normal people will like it.

Farhad: I’m inclined to believe that Notify, like other apps Facebook has released lately, is meant to be something of an experiment. So many people use Facebook’s main app that the company has trouble testing out radically new stuff there — so it puts out these smaller apps that are used by tech nerds like you, and once it learns enough about how people use certain new features, it shuttles them into the main app. So if you download Notify, you’re volunteering to be Facebook’s guinea pig.

Mike: Ugh, here we go again with the experiment talk. If someone puts out a great product, they’re a genius. If they put out something awful, it’s an experiment. Anyway, whatever it is, I don’t like it.

So onto the main event. And if you’ll bear with me, I’d like to get a little bit political for a moment.

This week, while I was watching the fourth Republican debate on Fox Business, in between all my Twitter jokes, I heard Marco Rubio say something interesting. Here’s Senator Rubio:

“The problem is that today people are not successful working as hard as ever because the economy is not providing jobs that pay enough. If I thought that raising the minimum wage was the best way to help people increase their pay, I would be all for it, but it isn’t. In the 20th century, it’s a disaster.

If you raise the minimum wage, you’re going to make people more expensive than a machine. And that means all this automation that’s replacing jobs and people right now is only going to be accelerated.”

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I won’t speak to the politics of the “raising the minimum wage” argument. But I’m curious about Senator Rubio’s argument. The idea that automation — the rise of the robots — is going to replace the middle class is nothing new. But do you truly think combating income stagnation by increasing the minimum wage is going to somehow accelerate that transition?

I feel like, if anything, the 1099 issue of contract workers is more pressing than all of our jobs being replaced by cyborgs. But maybe I’m wrong.

Farhad: Sure, the contract-worker stuff is important, but I think Senator Rubio is totally right to be focusing on how machines might alter human work — and I’m surprised, actually, about how little our presidential candidates have discussed the looming threat posed by robots.

Just about every study on automation — including one published last week by the McKinsey Global Institute — suggests that artificial intelligence is already transforming the economy, and because it is getting so much better so much faster than we’d all guessed, robots are on track to perform many of the tasks for which humans now make a living. For instance, McKinsey found that between 45 percent and 68 percent of occupational tasks — representing $ 2 trillion in wages — might be vulnerable to coming A.I.

In short, Mike, you should fear the robots. They’re coming for us all — probably for you first.

Mike: I think you’re crazy. Places like Eatsa, the weird restaurant where robots make you quinoa, are not the future. Unions and the political clout they have behind politicians won’t allow the robots to usurp our salad-tossing ways.

But what do I know? I’m just a monkey with a typewriter.

Farhad: Where Senator Rubio is a little off base is to tie automation to the minimum-wage issue. It’s comforting for “high-skill” workers like you and me (well, maybe not you) to think that only low-paid jobs are going to succumb to robots. That’s just not true; McKinsey says there’s only a slight correlation between hourly wage and the potential for jobs to be automated. Large parts of what many highly paid people do can be automated — 20 percent of what chief executives do can be replaced by machines, McKinsey found. But there are low-paid jobs like home health care, landscaping and maintenance that aren’t likely to be automated soon.

Mike: I totally disagree with this study, by the way. Ninety percent of my job is talking to other people and getting them to tell me things. Robots will not write the next great feature profile of Uber. It takes a human touch to make many of these jobs — including those held by chief executives — actually work. Who conducted this dumb study anyway, a robot intern?

Farhad: Wow, you certainly are confident in your abilities, aren’t you, human? Give the robots 20 years; I bet they’ll report and write circles around you.

Anyway, what’s really been missing in the election so far is any talk of what to do about A.I. Republicans have spent a lot of time this year talking about how undocumented immigrants are taking people’s jobs. Robots are a much bigger threat, and you can’t really build a wall to keep them out.

Mike: Honestly, I think the only conception of A.I. familiar to a lot of these politicians was that awful film from a decade ago starring the kid from “The Sixth Sense.” Also, we won’t need a wall — electromagnetic pulse grenades can totally kill robots. Haven’t you seen “The Matrix?”

Farhad: I’ll make my robot watch it now. See you!

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