The Week in Tech: Are Robots Coming for Your Job? Eventually, Yes.

By Steve Lohr


The War Room at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. The work done in office will crucial to the company’s efforts to fight false news and fake accounts on its platform between now and the fall elections.CreditCreditJason Henry for The New York Times

Each week, technology reporters and columnists from 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. Want this newsletter in your inbox? Sign up here.

Greetings from the real economy. I’m Steve Lohr, a tech reporter for The Times, and I tend to focus on the effects of technology beyond Silicon Valley. No question, the Valley is a wellspring of innovation and home to the ascendant digital corporate giants, both feared and admired. But it’s just a sliver of the $20 trillion American economy.

Technology is only a tool in service of greater ends, and those ends presumably extend beyond creating billionaires and enriching investors. The larger agenda, in economic terms, includes growth, productivity, living standards and jobs.

Let’s take one of those economic ingredients — jobs.

Forecasts of technology’s impact on jobs run the spectrum from apocalyptic to sanguine, depending largely on the pace of progress in artificial intelligence. But there is a consistency to the serious research on the coming course of automation: In the near term, occupations are more likely be transformed by digital technology than destroyed by it.

But a decade or so out, there will be big changes. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that up to a third of the American work force will have to switch to new occupations by 2030.

The work of the future, it seems clear, is going to be digitally inflected. Software skills are increasingly essential to every field. Most tech workers no longer work in the tech industry, and that trend is accelerating.

The biggest challenge is finding pathways to good jobs in the modern economy for the two-thirds of Americans who do not have four-year college degrees. Addressing that challenge is the focus of policymakers, state and local governments, some companies and several nonprofits like the Markle Foundation and Opportunity@Work.

These efforts are typically not far along yet, but the ones that seem to work best are collaborations — public-private partnerships that also involve nonprofit organizations and educational institutions.

A new project adopting the collaborative model was announced this month in New Haven, Conn. The goal, said Gov. Dannel Malloy, is “cultivating the tech work force talent of tomorrow.” The new venture aims to double the number of software engineering graduates in Connecticut over the next several years.

Its educational partner is a college-alternative start-up, the Holberton School. Founded in 2015 in San Francisco, Holberton offers a two-year program to create software engineers. Its graduates now work for companies like Apple, IBM, Dropbox and Tesla. The school charges no tuition, but graduates who get jobs pay the school 17 percent of their salaries for three years.

After the Connecticut announcement, I caught up with Holberton’s founders, Julien Barbier and Sylvain Kalache, both alumni of Silicon Valley companies. Their school is designed around projects and peer learning with mentors, but no formal teachers.

Technical skills are only part of the program. Writing white papers, project reviews and public speaking are also emphasized. Critical thinking, teamwork and learning to learn are the higher-order skills.

Technology changes too fast, Mr. Barbier said, for expertise in a particular set of software tools to be a lasting asset in the labor market.

“In two years, you do learn a craft that is in demand,” said Mr. Barbier, Holberton’s chief executive. “But this is really about self-learning. If you can train yourself, you’re never going to obsolete.”

In San Francisco, Holberton has enrolled a total of 300 students since it opened its doors two years ago and, with added space, hopes to bring in 1,000 students a year before long. At the New Haven school, which begins next year, Holberton plans to start with 30 to 50 students and then expand rapidly.

Its model has made encouraging progress. But the big question for all the experiments intended to prepare people for the future of work is whether anything can scale up to the size of the challenge that America faces.

Some tech stories of note this week:

■ Facebook is setting up a “War Room” as the command center for the social network’s campaign to root out false news and fake accounts before the fall elections. The executive who is leading the effort called it “probably the biggest companywide reorientation since our shift from desktops to mobile phones.”

■ A group of job seekers filed charges with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Facebook and nine employers. Their complaint claims the companies are using Facebook’s ad targeting technology to exclude female candidates from seeing their job ads.

■ In South Texas, Silicon Valley start-ups are scrambling to supply technology for a “virtual” border wall. Digital surveillance may be more effective and less costly than President Trump’s beloved brick-and-mortar wall. But the never-blinking gaze of robotic sentinels on vast stretches of private property understandably raises privacy worries.

■ The European Union has begun an antitrust investigation of Amazon’s practices in e-commerce. The issue is whether Amazon unfairly uses data collected about third-party sellers to make its own decisions about products to sell, giving it an anticompetitive edge.

■ A fascinating look at how fake news germinates and goes viral. My colleague Kevin Roose dug into five bogus claims about Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault. A nugget of fact is wrapped in layers of conspiratorial imagining, and then eagerly consumed by the like-minded online.

Steve Lohr writes about technology and the economy for The New York Times. You can follow him on Twitter here: @SteveLohr