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On Friday Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin stepped onstage with Axios’ Mike Allen to talk about his role in the Trump administration. Mnuchin, formerly the CIO of Goldman-Sachs and a hedge fund manager, gushed about POTUS before discussing subjects such as tax reform, the global economy, and Silicon Valley. In the latter, Mnuchin revealed a shocking opinion and a lack of understanding of today’s technology climate.
“I’m not worried at all” Mnuchin said in the conversation about robots displacing humans in the near future. “It’s not even on our radar screen,” he said, supplanting that any such threat from AI is 50 to 100 more years away.
Newsflash, Treasury Secretary: You’re very, very wrong.
Various tech community pundits took to Twitter to voice their dismay.
This actually is kind of frightening, particularly the dismissal of the impact of AI and machine learning on jobs... https://t.co/bMNVmFEDPj— larryirving (@larry_irving) March 24, 2017
1/12 At an @axios event this morning, Treasury Sec Mnuchin said one of the most misguided things I’ve heard from the Trump Admin so far:— Amy Webb (@amywebb) March 24, 2017
5/12 The Trump Administration has proven itself to reject, data, evidence and science––but now, they appear to be rejecting CURIOSITY.— Amy Webb (@amywebb) March 24, 2017
(Webb’s full 12-part thread is worth a quick read.)
I am absolutely stunned by Mnuchin's view on AI/machine learning. And I don't stun easy.— Dan Primack (@danprimack) March 24, 2017
Mnuchin: Losing human jobs to AI "not even on our radar screen."— Hunter Walk ✎ (@hunterwalk) March 24, 2017
Exclusive video of GOP radar screen⬇️ pic.twitter.com/O8ufcRs3oz
As pointed out by Amy Webb (author of the book The Signals Are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe Is Tomorrow’s Mainstream), Mnuchin’s statement isn’t just “utterly shocking“—it’s utterly dangerous. It demonstrates either the administration’s willful ignorance of trending technological developments, or willful dismissal of it. In either case, not understanding the issues facing our nation’s workers in the future will put our government at a disadvantage for handling those problems when they arise.
And they will. Already, IBM Watson technology is displacing white collar jobs in Japan in insurance firms and being used by law firms. In both cases, AI is more quickly and efficiently able to sift through huge tomes of text or data than a human worker would be. (AI also doesn’t take sick days or require health insurance, among other things.) And the self-driving car industry, fueled by AI that allows a vehicle to navigate roadways on its own while sensing its surroundings, is set to completely disrupt one of the most prolific occupations in the country: truck driving. In this area, we’re in the testing phase. However, we could see some degree of driver substitution happening within the next five years. And in just over 10 years, we could see legitimate autonomous vehicles on roadways, according to our current pace of development.
Perhaps, when Mnuchin spoke, he was purely thinking of corporeal AI, the types of walking, talking, humanoid robots you see in movies like Ex Machina, Star Wars, or Star Trek. If so, that still only speaks to his ignorance: Artificial intelligence lies in the code powering a machine, not in the physical form that it takes.
If the Trump administration would open its eyes, it would see the workforce shift stemming from AI has already begun. And if it opened its ears to listen to forward-thinking leaders, it could prepare both companies and citizens for this revolution. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, for example, believes that taxing companies for using robotic or AI labor would help offset the savings corporations would get from ditching human workers. Such a tax could also go toward helping displaced workers find roles in new industries, as well.
As the Trump administration seems unwilling to learn, grow, or accept basic scientific fact, it’s unlikely that our government will make moves that will benefit tomorrow’s factory workers, truck drivers, and information workers anytime soon. It will be up to the companies themselves to enact policies that don’t leave workers in the dust. And it will be up to us humans to start honing skills that artificial intelligence will never excel at.
Christina Bonnington is a tech reporter who specializes in consumer gadgets, apps, and the trends shaping the technology industry. Her work has also appeared in Gizmodo, Wired, Refinery29, Slate, Bicycling, and Outside Magazine. She is based in the San Francisco Bay Area and has a background in electrical engineering.