Kevin Roose: How can we stay relevant in an increasingly automated workforce? Tech reporter Kevin Roose doesn't want you to be scared of your job becoming automated. He says that rather than competing with machines, we should work to develop our fundamentally human skills.

Kevin Roose: How can we stay relevant in an increasingly automated workforce?

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MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. Today on the show, the first part of our series Work, Play, Rest. And so far, we've been hearing about ways to make work better for workers, for cities, for entrepreneurs. But right now, with millions of people having given up their jobs in the past year, some companies are struggling to fill their ranks, and so they're turning to machines.

KEVIN ROOSE: Companies have been investing in automation to fill the gap in their labor force, saying, instead of paying people $15 or $20 an hour for entry-level work, what if we spent $100,000 and built a machine that could do this job forever?

ZOMORODI: This is Kevin Roose. He's a tech reporter for The New York Times. And he says the pandemic is only speeding up the inevitable automation of many jobs.

ROOSE: Right.

ZOMORODI: Like, I saw that Domino's Pizza is putting in place equipment to produce their dough and people just saying, well, we were going to make the transition. Let's do it now because we actually don't have enough humans to do the jobs. Is that a strange knock-on effect of this employment crisis?

ROOSE: Yeah. There are a lot of economists who think that this sort of acceleration that we've seen during the pandemic could really pull forward by a number of years this looming automation crisis.

ZOMORODI: Let's be clear. Robots taking over jobs is not really a new problem.

ROOSE: In the first sort of wave of automation during the 20th century and early in this century, automation and machines were mostly doing manual labor.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Today's way of manufacturing.

ROOSE: They were doing repetitive tasks in factories. They were, you know, sorting packages in warehouses, things like that.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Automatic packaging of our products.

ROOSE: And now, you know, there are still people who are performing jobs that are essentially end points. You know, they're taking instructions from a machine, and they're plugging them into another machine. Basically, the goal is to automate these tasks entirely. Those jobs are the first that are going to be automated.

ZOMORODI: We've known about that kind of automation for a while, but machines are also coming for other sectors, even professional, higher-paid jobs.

ROOSE: Now with AI and machine learning, machines can do what we would think of as cognitive work, even complex cognitive work. There was a study a few years ago, and they found that actually, the jobs that were most at risk of being automated were white-collar jobs, jobs that require college education. Some of them require graduate degrees. Managers, supervisors, things like market research analyst or sales manager, personal financial advisor - those were the jobs that, actually, AI is now doing quite well.

ZOMORODI: Nearly a decade ago, automation even came for Kevin's job. And it kind of freaked him out.

ROOSE: One of my first jobs in journalism involved doing a lot of corporate earnings reports - the kind of basic, you know, Toyota made this much money this quarter with strong sales in their North American division, or something like that.

ZOMORODI: Right.

ROOSE: And now that job has been almost completely automated. Most publications and, like, the AP and Reuters now use automated software to write corporate earnings reports. And so that was my first hint that something was happening in this industry, in journalism, and that I needed to start paying attention to it because the last thing I wanted to do is to wake up one day and find that I had been replaced by a robot.

ZOMORODI: I remember the first time that we heard about these automated journalism and reports going on. And I read one, and I was like, oh, it's pretty good (laughter), actually. I mean, you know, you start to think, well, what am I adding to this work, right? It starts to beg a very fundamental existential question when you see that AI or whatever you want to call it can automate your job pretty well. It starts to make you think, well, why am I needed?

ROOSE: Absolutely. I mean, this is happening not just in journalism but in every industry - in medicine, in law, in finance. And so now the question for us is, what can we do that machines can't? Where is our distinct human advantage? And so that's what I set out to learn. I started off by going to every expert I could find, and I basically asked them, like, what can we do to avoid being replaced by a robot? And what they told me was basically, no, there is no job that is completely protected from robot replacement, from automation, from AI. But any job can be made more resistant to automation by essentially making it more human.

ZOMORODI: Kevin Roose picks up the idea in his TED talk.

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ROOSE: Rather than trying to compete with machines, we should be trying to improve our human skills, the kinds of things that only people can do, things involving compassion and critical thinking and moral courage. And when we do our jobs, we should be trying to do them as humanely as possible. For me, that meant putting more of myself in my work. I stopped writing formulaic corporate earnings stories, and I started writing things that revealed more of my personality. I started a financial poetry series. I wrote profiles of quirky and interesting people on Wall Street, like the barber who cuts people's hair at Goldman Sachs. I even convinced my editor to let me live like a billionaire for a day, wearing a $30,000 watch and driving around in a Rolls-Royce - tough job, but someone's got to do it.

And I found this new, human approach to my job made me feel much more optimistic about my own future because you can teach a robot to summarize the news or to write a headline that's going to get a lot of clicks, but you can't automate making someone laugh with a dumb limerick about the bond market or explaining what a collateralized debt obligation is to them without making them fall asleep.

ZOMORODI: OK, so for journalism, I mean, it makes sense, right? We live now in a world where journalists have brand names. Their byline is sometimes more important than the name of the publication. But how can that human-centered approach be applied to other jobs?

ROOSE: Yeah, I think that a lot of these more resilient jobs will be the ones that involve providing emotional support for people. You know, home health care workers, occupational therapists, nurses, teachers, career coaches - these kinds of jobs that, you know, even if a robot could technically give you advice on, you know, how to talk to your boss about a raise, you're going to want a human with experience and some real, you know, bedside manner to walk you through that. You're not going to accept a robot substitute.

ZOMORODI: To me, that was proven so much through the pandemic with my kids' education, how much they needed the support of a teacher who saw the look in their eyes when they didn't understand something. You know, as much as there is available online with Khan Academy and other ways that you can learn remotely, that relationship in and of itself is an education. And I feel like my kids really missed it.

ROOSE: Absolutely. I think one of the lessons that we learned during the pandemic is that there are limits to the amount of automation and technology that we will accept into our lives. There are certain things that humans are just better at. So those jobs - they're not totally immune. No job is immune. But those jobs are much, much safer than jobs that don't involve meeting people's emotional needs.

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ROOSE: As I researched more, I found so many more examples of people who had succeeded this way, by refusing to compete with machines and instead making themselves more human. Take Marcus Books. Marcus Books is a small, independent, Black-owned bookstore in my hometown of Oakland, Calif. It's a pretty amazing place. It's the oldest Black-owned bookstore in America. And for 60 years, it's been introducing Oaklanders to the work of people like Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou.

But the most amazing thing about Marcus Books is that it's still here. So many independent bookstores have gone out of business in the last few decades because of Amazon or the internet. So how did Marcus Books do it? Well, it's not 'cause they have the lowest prices or the slickest e-commerce setup or the most optimized supply chain. It's because Marcus Books is so much more than a bookstore. It's a community gathering place where generations of Oaklanders have gone to learn and grow. It's a safe place where Black customers know that they're not going to be followed around or patted down by a security guard. As Blanche Richardson, one of the owners of Marcus Books, told me, it just has good vibes.

Marcus Books temporarily closed. And like a lot of businesses, its future was uncertain. It was raising money through a GoFundMe page. And if you look at the comments on its GoFundMe page, you can see why Marcus Books has survived all these years. One person wrote that we have a duty to preserve gems like this in our community. Someone else said, I've been going to Marcus Books since I was a child, and Blanche Richardson showed me many kindnesses. Those aren't words about technology. They're not even words about books. They're words about people. The thing that saved Marcus Books was how they made their customers feel - an experience, not a transaction.

ZOMORODI: I wonder if somebody listening is like, well, Marcus Books clearly isn't scalable. But I guess what you're saying is, like, that's the point.

ROOSE: Right. And a lot of the sort of businesses that we're seeing today are successful because they're not scalable. And that's a signal because what people are paying a premium for in those businesses is the handmade quality of these goods, the fact that they're not being churned out in a warehouse in China somewhere. So I think that the economy that we're seeing is sort of fracturing into two. There are the things that are done by machines. There are the things that are done by humans. And I think both of those are worthy of exploration.

ZOMORODI: OK, so let's talk about how we actually build this sort of next era of the workforce because what you're talking about is a different kind of training. I think it's about emphasizing emotional intelligence. How do you even teach that? - because what worries me is that some people who maybe are introverted or shy or, you know, a good journalist but maybe not quite as charming as you, Kevin - that they somehow get left behind in this emotionally centric workforce.

ROOSE: Yeah. I mean, it's going to take some work for some people. The way that during the Industrial Revolution people had to retrain themselves to work in factories rather than on farms, for this new AI era, we're going to learn - need to learn these more fundamental human skills. There are social and emotional learning programs. There are, you know, courses you can take to improve your empathy. In medical schools now, there are classes that are purely about how to talk to patients. They're not about, you know, how to diagnose them. It's about how do you break bad news to people? How do you empathize with someone who's going through one of the hardest times of their lives? And that's the kind of education and skills that we're going to need across lots of disciplines.

One of the fastest-growing, you know, jobs in the tech industry right now is basically trust and safety. It's people who can manage the health of these enormous platforms to prevent people from misusing them. And that's something that requires a lot of complex understanding of, you know, human dynamics and human nature and, you know, understanding threat models. And that's a skill that they're not teaching in a lot of college computer science classes but that has turned out to be hugely important.

ZOMORODI: I mean, no matter how much we need humans to do certain work, it sounds like, in the future, there will simply be fewer jobs, period. Is that something we need to hear governments address more? - because right now politicians still seem to run on a platform of, you know, bringing work back to a region, saying, we will train for new jobs. But perhaps what we really need is more of a paradigm shift.

ROOSE: I think we do. I mean, I think we should take a lesson from some of the other countries that have implemented structures and systems to help people through times of technological change. In Japan, for example, there's a longstanding practice among factories where, if your job is automated, they can basically loan you out to another company that needs your skill set until they find something else for you to do. It's a practice called shukko, and it's been going on for decades.

In Sweden, there are these job councils that basically catch people who are laid off because of automation. And they pay for - there's these sort of public-private partnerships, and they pay to retrain people, to teach them interview skills, to get them out onto the job market again, to basically serve as a kind of safety net for people when their jobs are displaced by automation.

And then, of course, the most basic thing we could do to help people through this time of transition is to provide things like universal health care, which, you know, would prevent a lot of people from feeling like, if they lose their job, they also lose their access to health care. And we'd kind of decouple these things that we need to survive with the jobs that make us money.

ZOMORODI: But, Kevin, maybe we even need to pay people if they don't work, right? Some people have been talking much more seriously - and it's actually being tested in certain places - this idea of a universal basic income. Is that what the future holds?

ROOSE: Yeah. I think that - you know, I support universal basic income. But I do think we will need a broader safety net not only because there will be fewer jobs but because it's going to take some time for people to make the transition from one set of jobs to another. I think that this often gets lost when you hear people, you know, at big, fancy conferences saying, oh, there will be, you know, new jobs created to replace the old ones that disappear to AI. And it's like, well, yeah, but that's not going to be a seamless process. It never has been.

ZOMORODI: Right.

ROOSE: You know, during the Industrial Revolution, there was, you know, lots of dislocation. There were, you know, labor riots and horrible working conditions and many years where wages were not catching up to corporate profits. And it took a lot of real effort and activism to make that work for workers. And so I think that we need to be conscious of the fact that some people are not just going to seamlessly leave their, you know, automated job and go become, you know, metaverse therapists or whatever the new jobs will be. They will need skills they will need to be taught.

So we actually want to differentiate ourselves, to leave our own distinct mark on the things that we create so that people on the other end - people who are, you know, listening to podcasts - know that we are humans doing this conversation and not robots, you know, feeding each other laugh lines.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

That's Kevin Roose. He's a technology columnist for The New York Times and the author of "Future Proof: Nine Rules For Humans In The Age Of Automation". You can see his full talk at ted.com.

Thank you so much for listening to our episode about work today. We couldn't, of course, get into all the ways that people are rethinking their jobs and how they make a living, but I hope the broader themes of this show brought you some context. Maybe it even gave you a different perspective on any dissatisfaction with work that you're seeing or experiencing yourself. Some old ideas, like collective bargaining - they are coming back. Other old ideas, like who gets to access high-paying jobs, are being toppled. But perhaps most reassuringly - to me, at least - there are signs that, in the future, we'll put a higher value on humanity, the work that only humans can do, even in an economy increasingly run by algorithms and machines.

A quick reminder - this was the first show in Work, Play, Rest, our series about how the fundamental ways we spend our time are changing, which means that next week, we explore play with musician Jacob Collier and many others. Subscribe to the podcast so you don't miss it. And as always, to see hundreds more TED talks, check out ted.com or the TED app.

This episode was produced by Katie Monteleone, Matthew Cloutier and Diba Mohtasham. It was edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour and Rachel Faulkner. Our TED radio production staff also includes Jeff Rogers, James Delahoussaye, Fiona Geiran and Harrison Vijay Tsui. Our audio engineer is Brian Jarboe, and our intern is Margaret Cirino. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan, Michelle Quint, Sammy Case and Daniella Balarezo. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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