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Robots & us: Harvard graduate Kinley Salmon on NZ's future

Kinley Salmon. Photo/Hagen Hopkins/Listener

A Nelson son who left school at 16 then studied at Cambridge and Harvard has followed his family’s tradition of writing about the future well-being of New Zealanders. 

“Machines … at first reduce the monotony and enhance the life but, in the end, if used indiscriminately, they increase the monotony and impoverish the life of both maker and user.” – May Davis, May Davis: Her Story

When Kinley Salmon was casting around for the opening words for his new book on the future of work, he reached for his maternal grandmother’s 1990 autobiography.

Salmon’s book, Jobs, Robots & Us: Why the Future of Work in New Zealand Is in Our Hands, examines employment in the face of technological advances, such as the effect of driverless vehicles on taxi and truck drivers, and what automated check-in kiosks mean for hotel workers. It is, he concludes, as did his grandmother, May Davis, a trade-off between economic maximisation and human meaning.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Salmon works in Washington DC as an economist for the World Bank. His parents, Guy and Gwenny, nurtured his many talents – sporting, cultural and academic – as well as those of his brother, Erin. They also instilled in their sons an awareness and passion for the environment; Guy was a founder of the Native Forest Action Council. Kinley was precociously bright, leaving school at 16 and spending a year in Spain before studying at Cambridge University, then later at Harvard. A consultant at McKinsey & Company, Salmon has worked in London and Pakistan, though he remains a passionate Nelsonian.

Jobs, Robots & Us looks 25 years or so into the future, at the pluses and minuses of work for New Zealanders. Salmon decides that, on balance, we are a happier, healthier and wealthier nation if we are in work. Aiming for a world in which most people continue to work, he argues, gives us by far the best chance at that.

Salmon concedes that jobs that are neither challenging nor social can be debilitating. He suggests the best response is to find ways to make work more meaningful, inclusive and interesting, while enabling technology to reduce menial, repetitive or dangerous tasks. He says New Zealanders and our policy-making leaders need to get thinking and make choices: our future is in our hands.

Kinley Salmon at a Pacific event at the New Zealand Embassy in Washington. Photo/Salmon family/Supplied

Your book makes it clear that decisions for the future are needed now, but we’re not always good at that in New Zealand, are we? We’re usually hindered by a range of factors, not least our relatively short three-year electoral cycle, which was a factor in scuppering the capital gains tax.

In politics, focusing on the long term can be hard, but I’m confident about New Zealand and its future. We are quite nimble as a country and have a vibrant democracy. In general, we are able to enter some of these debates on long-term issues, climate change, for example, although maybe not as quickly as we might. You make an interesting point about the electoral cycle, and [Wellington academic] Jonathan Boston has written about this. As someone looking at it from abroad, I am sympathetic to that view. Although we have short parliamentary terms, our [election] campaigns are short compared with those elsewhere. We don’t get caught up in campaigning for so long.

What motivated you to write the book?

The time is right to tackle the challenge of making decisions for the future. I set out some of the evidence in the book to say that although things may not be as scary as we are sometimes told, change is coming, and there is a window at the moment when we can shape what happens. I’m hoping to push that debate along. I acknowledge my conclusions are but one perspective. I am keen to hear what other people think and what future vision they have for New Zealand as they see what is happening with technological change and so on. I feel optimistic that we in New Zealand can influence the future for ourselves.

Kinley with his parents, Guy Salmon and Gwenny Davis, and brother in 1991. Photo/Salmon family/Supplied

Your upbringing has been steeped in an awareness of the past, present and the future. What was your childhood like?

I have one brother and, because my parents separated, two step-siblings. Nelson is a lovely place to grow up, and I had a very happy upbringing. I was fortunate to have gone to excellent schools. With the national parks so close, going for tramps and getting out and about in nature were a big part of my childhood. It built an appreciation of the natural environment that has stuck with me. One of the things I’ve missed about being overseas is being able to easily go to beautiful places.

You’re from a long line of inquiring and academic minds, including your grandmother, May Davis, whom you quote at the start of your book. Did you know her?

She passed away when I was seven, but I do remember her. She was a big figure in our family life. Her book, a record of her life, was a gift for us. Reading it was influential for me in terms of some of the choices she and my grandfather, Harry, made, trying to do something to help the world. Most striking was their decision to go to Peru in their sixties and set up a pottery workshop, then hand it on to the local community.

With partner Lucila on Harvard graduation day in 2015. Photo/Salmon family/Supplied

On the paternal side of the family was your grandfather, John Salmon, who wrote a range of books, including The Native Trees of New Zealand. Planting trees is so much about the future. Did his interests and your parents’ involvement in environmental activism rub off on you?

Yes, and my grandmother, Pam, was also published. My parents were involved in the Native Forests Action Council. Thinking about the environment tends to make you think about the future. In my book, I touch a lot on issues of automation and artificial intelligence, but I really wanted to bring into that questions of climate and the environment, because I think they intersect, and there is a long family history of curiosity about those questions, too.

You list sport as a hobby, having played soccer a lot, but also admit to blobbing out in front of the television. This is a random but topical question: are you a Game of Thrones fan?

I feel like I’m one of the only people in the world who wasn’t following Games of Thrones, but I probably should have. I do watch some box sets – we [with partner Lucila] watched The West Wing, which was close to home, and I watched a show called The Americans, which is a Russian CIA espionage Cold War thing.

What are you reading?

I read quite a lot of fiction, because it puts you into a different world. I am just finishing Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen, and I have really enjoyed it. I recently read Tina Makereti’s Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings, which was very good. It is nice to read New Zealand literature when you are abroad, as it helps keep up the connection.

I also read The Luminaries [by Eleanor Catton] and really enjoyed it. Initially, I was a bit daunted by the size, but when I got into it, it was fantastic. I’ve also recently read Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee, about generations of Korean immigrants in Japan. It is a brilliant read about a place and time I don’t know much about.

What’s do you most enjoy about your work?

I have been lucky to work on issues to do with economic development and education. I have always been interested in international development, perhaps inspired by May and Harry. The best part is being able to try to make a contribution, however small, and to feel useful. That doesn’t happen every day, but when it does, however fleetingly, it is the best thing I experience.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the World Bank.

This article was first published in the June 8, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.