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Are Robots Coming For Your Office Job?

From Audio: The robots are coming for your office, with NYT’s Kevin Roose

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station description A business show about big ideas — and other problems.
Recode Decode
Duration: 10:20
The host of Recode Decode sits down with NYT’s Kevin Roose to discuss how automation isn't just taking over manufacturing and most low-level office jobs are on the cusp of being replaced by software.
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The host of Recode Decode sits down with NYT’s Kevin Roose to discuss how automation isn't just taking over manufacturing and most low-level office jobs are on the cusp of being replaced by software.
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today we're going to talk about one of the biggest ideas of all automation in the workplace. Specifically something called robotic process automation or R. P. A. Now our P. A. Isn't robots in factories which is what you probably thought of when I said automation this is different. R. P. A. Is software software which uses other software like Excel or an oracle database. So if you have an office building full of accountants doing repetitive tasks on their computers you might replace them with our P. A. Now I know what you're thinking. That sounds incredibly boring. And I know you're thinking that because I have been trying to get people at the verge to write about R. P. A. For years and they have all told me that it's boring and then they didn't do it. Here's Virge, Features reporter josh Tessa. I ended up looking into it and it seems important but hard to make a compelling story out of it and wrote something completely different about automation. Here's former Verge features editor Michael Zlenko, I don't remember anything about robotics classes, automation and it sounds so boring that I probably forgot about it. And here's former Silicon Valley editor Casey Newton. What I remember Is you sent me like three or 4 sentences in slack and I contemplated them and thought this is not a wild goose that I particularly want to chase because frankly it just sounded incredibly tedious. It's an important goose. Casey hunk. I would remind you that I am the editor in chief of the Verge and theoretically I can assign whatever I want, especially about an industry that already generates billions of dollars in revenue and is on pace to be a $20 billion industry by 2027. According to Deloitte and R. P. A. Company called UI Path was actually the fastest growing tech company in north America in 2019. R. P. A. Is a huge shift hiding in plain sight because it sounds so boring and that meant I really couldn't get the story assigned. But today I have finally found someone who wants to talk about robotic process automation with me. New york times tech columnist Kevin Roose who's just written a new book called Future Proof Nine Rules for humans in the age of automation. It features a lengthy discussion of our P. A. Who's using it, who it will affect and how to think about it as you design your career. Pay attention to the jobs Kevin talks about as he describes the impact of automation. It is not factory workers and truck drivers, it's accountants and lawyers. Even journalists. If you have the kind of job that involves sitting in front of a computer using the same software in the same way every day, automation is coming for you and it won't be cool or innovative or even work all that well. It'll just be cheaper, faster and less likely to complain. That might sound like a downer. But kevin's book is all about seeing that as an opportunity. You'll see what okay, kevin Roose new york times columnist, author and the only reporter who has ever agreed to talk to me about robotic process automation. Here we go. What? Mhm Kevin Roose, your tech columnist at the new york Times and you have a new book, future proof nine rules for humans in the age of automation just out now, welcome to decoder. Thank you for having me. So you're ostensibly here to promote your book, which is great. I want to talk about your book, but there's like one piece of the book that I am absolutely fascinated by, which is this thing called robotic process automation and I'm going to do my best with you on the show today to make that super interesting. But before we get there, let's talk about your book for a minute. What is your book about? Because it I read it and it has a big idea and then there's literally nine rules for regular people to survive. So tell me how the book came together. Yes. So the book is basically divided into two parts and the first part is basically the diagnosis. It's sort of what is A I and automation doing today in in the economy, in our lives, in our homes, in our communities. How is it showing up? Who is it displacing? Who is at risk of losing career opportunities or other things to these machines? What do we sort of think about the arguments that this is all going to turn out fine, what's the evidence for that? Um And the second half of the book is really the sort of practical advice piece, that's the nine rules that you mentioned. And so it was my attempt to basically say like you know, what can we do about Ai and automation because I think you know you and I have been to dozens of tech conferences and there's always some talk about AI and automation and jobs and you know, some people are very optimistic, some people are very pessimistic, but at the end there's always like This chart that shows like how many jobs could be displaced by automation in the next 10 years. And then the talk ends, it's like everyone just goes to lunch and you know, and it's like okay but I'm sitting there like what do I do? Like I am a journalist, I work in an industry that is employing automation to do parts of my job. Like what should I what should anyone do to prepare for this? So I just I wanted to write that because I didn't I didn't see that it existed anywhere. So you just said we're journalists. It's an industry that employs automation to do parts of our job. I think that gets kind of right to the heart of the matter, which is the definition of automation, right? And sort of in the in the popular when I think when most people think of automation, they think of robots building cars and replacing factory workers in Detroit, you're talking about something much broader than that. Yeah, I mean the that's sort of the classic model of automation and still when like every time there's a story about automation, I I hate this and it's like my personal, you know vendetta against you know, newspaper and magazine editors, like every time you see a story about automation there's always a picture of a physical robot. And I get it like most robots, you know that we think of from sci fi our physical robots, but most robots that exist in the world today by a vast majority are software. Um And so what you're seeing today in corporate environments in journalism, in lots of places, um is that automation is showing up as software that does parts of the job that you know, frankly, I used to do my first job in journalism was writing corporate earnings stories. And and that's a job that has been largely automated by these software products now. So in earnings story is just to put it in sort of an abstract framework, a company releases its earnings. Those earnings are usually in a format, because the sec dictates earnings are released in a format you say, okay, here's the earnings per share, here's the revenue, Here's what the consensus analyst estimates were. They either beat the earnings or didn't. You can just write a script that makes that a story. You don't really need a person in the mix because there's there's almost no analysis to that. Right? Right. And that's not even a very hard form of automation. I mean, that technology existed years ago, because it's very much like filling in mad Libs. You know, it's like put the share price here, put the estimate here, put the revenue here. But now, what we're seeing with GPT three and sort of other large language models that are based on machine learning, is that it's not just mad Libs anymore. I mean, these are these generated texts are getting much better. They're much more convincing and compelling. They're much more original. They're not just repeating things that they've picked up from other places. So I think we'll see a lot more ai in journalism in the coming years. So one of the things, so we cover earnings the word if we do it with it, very different lens in a business publication. But we have we pay attention to a lot of companies. We care about their earnings. We cover them. If I could hire the robot to write the first two paragraphs of an earnings story for a reporter. I think all of my reporters with great like I don't wanna do that part. I want to get to the fun part where tim cook on the call said something shocking about the future of the Mac, right? And that's the part of the story that's interesting to us anyway. It seems like a lot of the automation story is doing jobs that are really boring, that people don't necessarily like to do. The tension. There is Well, shouldn't we automate the jobs that people don't like to do? Yeah. This is the argument for automation in the workplace. Is that all the jobs that are, you know, automate Herbal or repetitive and boring and people don't want to be doing them anyway. And so that's what you'll hear if you call up a ceo of a company that sells automating software. I mean our P. A. Software. Um and that's what I heard over and over again writing this book. But there's also a it's a little simplistic because automation can also take away the fun parts of people's jobs that they enjoy. There's a lot of examples of this through history where, you know, a factory automates and the owners of the factory are like this is great for workers. They will they hated you know lugging big pieces of steel and so now we'll have machines do that and they'll be able to do the fun and creative parts of the job. And then it they like install the automation and robots. And it turns out that the workers don't like it because that was part of the job that they enjoyed was not necessarily lugging the pieces of steel but was sort of the the camaraderie that built around that and the you know the sort of downtime between big tasks. And so it's it's ideally it would be the case that automation only took away the bad and boring and dull parts of people's jobs but in practice that's not always how it works. And now with things like DARPA we're seeing automation that is designed not just to replace one task or two tasks but is really designed to replace an entire humans workload. The R. P. A. Companies now are selling what they call digital workers. So instead of automating earnings reports you can automate entry level corporate journalism or or you know you can automate internal communications. There are various ways that this is appearing in the corporate world, but I think there's a gap between what the sort of utopian vision of this is and how it's actually being put into practice.
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