California’s would-be governor prepares for battle against job-killing robots

Gavin Newsom has been waiting in the wings for years as lieutenant governor. Now his campaign to result the state is taking on its golden industry: tech

The graduating computer science students at the University of California at Berkeley had just finished laughter at a joke about fleets of Google buses, Facebook shuttles and Uber-copters lining up to whisk them them to elite jobs in Silicon Valley. The commencement ceremony for a cohort of those individuals who, one professor confided, were worth around $25 bn was a feel-good affair.

Until, that is, Gavin Newsom took to the lectern and burst the bubble.

The smooth-talking Democrat, and frontrunner to win Californias gubernatorial race next year, cautioned the students that the plumbing of the world is radically changing. The tech industry that would make them rich, Newsom declared, was also rendering millions of other peoples jobs obsolete and fueling enormous disparities in wealth. Your job is to exert your moral authority, he said. It is to do the kinds of things in life that cant be downloaded.

That is not the various kinds of message computer engineers tend to hear. But Newsom, who has been waiting in the wings as Californias lieutenant governor for the past seven years, has put the consequences of automation and the center of his campaign.

This is code red, a firehose, a tsunami thats coming our style, he told the Guardian a few days after his commencement address at Berkeley. Were going to get rolled over unless we get ahead of this. California, a crucible of technological transformation that is reshaping the world, could be on the cusp of the first major election to be dominated by a debate over “what were doing” about robots.

It is a conversation that already feels overdue. San Francisco, the town where Newsom, 49, came to prominence as a two-term mayor, is a petri dish for technological advances and their social consequences. The novelty of watching driverless autoes on the roads wore off months ago, while delivery robots recently began patrolling the sidewalks.

San Francisco office workers can now grab lunch at a branch of Eatsa, a restaurant that boasts no waiters or cashiers, followed by a quick artisanal espresso at Cafe X, a coffee shop composed of the representatives of a single robotic arm. Newsom has been concerned about the numerous startups seeking to disrupt the fast-food industry.

He often complains about Momentum Machines, a secretive San Francisco startup promising to transform the fast-food industry with robotic technology. The ambition, according to the companys founder, is to completely obviate human workers.

Theres an empathy gap, Newsom said. I really feel intensely that the tech community needs to begin not just to solve these business problems but to begin to solve societal problems with the same kind of disruptive energy that they put behind developing the latest app.

A customer picks up his order from computerized cubbies at Eatsa, an automated restaurant in San Francisco. Photograph: Ramin Talaie for the Observer

But Newsoms critics question whether hes the legislator to take on the tech industry. Caricatured by adversaries as a business-friendly Davos Democrat, Newsom has a long record of support for gig-economy companies such as Uber and Lyft. One of his biggest sources of donations is Airbnb employees.

Newsom does not dispute that he has deep political connects in Silicon Valley, and refers to both Elon Musk and Mark Zuckeberg as friends. Ive grown up in and around this world. I could tell you 10 founders who I did their bridals, quite literally wedded them. Very, very close; a number of them are godparents to my kids.

Newsom argues his close relationship with the titans of technology, and his dependence on their gifts, constructs him better placed than his competitors to challenge the industry. I am likely the one person that can have that conversation, he said. Because I have the relationship.

He says that while he respects technology, Im starting to appreciate the downsides more and more. But in his own business, a conglomerate of restaurants, bars, hotels and wineries, Newsom said he is increasingly aware of the upsides of labor-saving technology.

His interview with the Guardian took place in Balboa Cafe, a Newsom-owned eatery in the Marina district. One of his waitress was within earshot where reference is remarked: I think well have some bartenders for a while, although I know for a fact they have robotic bar tending technology.

One of his Napa vineyards, he added, recently started utilizing a $50,000 German-made machine that utilizes sophisticated optical scanning technology to pick and sort grapes. He conceded that the machine was replacing human grape-pickers, who might not be able to find work elsewhere. Its their lives, he said. And thats my point. Im part of the problem.

I dont have the damn answer

Precisely what to do about that problem is the issue that is vexing all politicians. For all the effort he has put into asking questions about automation, Newsom, by his own admission, is coming up short on answers.

He is not opposed to universal basic income, an idea popular among Silicon Valley utopians that would see all citizens receive some kind of regular and unconditional pay, and is interested in a proposal submitted by Bill Gates to tax companies when they replace humans with robots.

Gavin Newsom at a news conference in 2006, when he was mayor of San Francisco. Photo: Ben Margot/ AP

But Newsom said he was not ready to endorse either policy. Adopting politician-speak, he said his team was starting to leaning in to create the tenor of a policy approach that will involve rethinking the education system and massive investment in apprenticeships.

Then he reverted to a more frank response. Im struggling to figure it out, he said. So I dont have the damn answer.

Temporary insanity

Having spent seven years in the largely powerless role of lieutenant governor, in the shadow of his boss, Jerry Brown, Newsom is acutely is conscious that the first step to get anything done is likely to be winning what is expected to be a crowded and competitive race.

One potential complicating factor is Newsoms ex-wife, Kimberly Guilfoyle, a Fox News pundit who many expect will become Donald Trumps new White House press secretary.

Guilfoyle has stimulated no secret of her wish to replace the beleaguered Sean Spicer, who beat her to the job back in January. Newsom shook his head at the believed to be his ex-wife becoming the chief spokesperson for the Trump administration.

Didnt they just say it is not happening? he said. You think it could happen?

The answer to that depends on who you ask. One recent report said Trump was furious at Guilfoyle for undermining Spicer, but the article appeared to be based on unnamed White House sources loyal to the press secretary.

Yet Trump is known to be an admirer of the telegenic Tv personality. According to Guilfoyle, Trump phoned her on the morning he pulled out of the Paris climate accord, arguably the most momentous action of his presidency, to consult her on his decision.

Newsom said that while Guilfoyles transition from a one-time deputy district attorney of San Francisco to Trumps translator-in-chief would make for a fascinating narrative, it would not distract him from challenging the Republican administration if elected governor.

I know why you guys are writing about it. Its entirely fair game, he said. From San Francisco to Trump its a good story.

Yet it is not an especially good association for a Democrat in liberal California, and Newsom could find himself haunted by an embarrassing photo of the couple in a posed espouse on the floor of a mansion. The image appeared in a 2004 issue of Harpers Bazaar magazine, which declared the couple The New Kennedys( four months before they filed for divorce ).

Newsom insisted on my mothers grave that the picture had not been planned. It passed after he was asked to sit down by the photographer, after which, he said, Guilfoyle arrived and did the rest.

When that “re coming out” I was like: fair game, on me, mental faults, he said. Anything that could be said about that which mocks me is legit. I have no defense. You wont see that again. Mea culpa. Temporary madnes. What can I say?

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