Companies are investing heaps of money to develop artificial-intelligence technologies that promise to transform industries as varied as transportation, finance and health care. That all adds up to big economic change, technologists warn.
But for Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the artificial intelligence revolution and its impact on the U.S. workforce is “not even on our radar screen.” In an interview with Axios, Mnuchin predicted the technology was still 50 to 100 years from displacing human jobs.
“I’m not worried at all,” he said. “In fact, I’m optimistic.”
His remarks contrast with a growing body of research that suggests the economic shift will be here much sooner.
Last week, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released a broad report spelling out the expected impact of automation on productivity, employment and income. While new technologies have always posed a threat to specific jobs, “simultaneous automation of a broader range of tasks could create unemployment or perhaps reduce aggregate levels of employment for an extended period of time,” the report found.
That actual impact may depend, the report stated, on whether new jobs are created as quickly as old jobs become obsolete.
In the last month of President Barack Obama’s administration, the White House released its own report on artificial intelligence. Its conclusion: Millions of jobs could be displaced, particularly those filled by less-educated workers, and the country’s economic divide could widen. The government should expand access to education in technical fields and broaden unemployment benefits to compensate for job losses, according to the report.
Both reports referenced the coming wave of self-driving cars as an example of disruptive automation. Millions of Americans make their living behind the wheel of a vehicle, be they long-haul trucks, delivery vans or taxicabs. Those jobs are expected to dissipate as automakers and tech companies develop sophisticated technology over the next decade that makes human drivers unnecessary.
Brookings Institution senior fellow Mark Muro said Mnuchin’s assessment is out of line with mainstream thinking on automation, particularly the idea that the impact on human workers will not be felt for decades. On the contrary, he said, some jobs in fields like manufacturing have already been displaced.
The government is currently grappling with the ramifications of globalization, another major economic shift that left many out of work and with fewer opportunities, Muro said. In fact, President Trump gained popularity on the campaign trail with promises to bring manufacturing back to the United States and implement protectionist trade policies that put “America first.”
“It seems incurious not to view automation as a possible concern,” Muro said. “That the nation and its leaders were far too complacent about trade’s impacts on some communities would seem to suggest leaders should not be complacent about another, potentially more pervasive, challenge.”
Read more from The Washington Post’s Innovations section.