During the Obama administration, R. David Edelman was one of the president's top advisers. As a part of Obama's National Security Council and his National Economic Council, Edelman was among those responsible for crafting U.S. policies on cybersecurity, technology and innovation — at a time when all three were making national headlines. Now, Edelman is headed to MIT, where he'll direct the university's new Project on Technology, the Economy, and National Security. On Monday, I sat down with Edelman for an interview at The Washington Post's offices to discuss the future of automation, jobs and cyberwarfare. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Like many Americans, I've been thinking a lot about robots taking over jobs. People talk a lot about “job retraining” and “education” to put people back to work, but it's almost always in an abstract way. What specifically can we do to help people who are struggling?
Think about the people who are IT technicians maintaining the WiFi equipment in hotels. Or enterprise software back-end folks that are helping to administer an HR database. Those are jobs that exist everywhere. There are opportunities out there for individuals to get higher paying jobs that require technical skills that are not four-year bachelor of science, MIT degree jobs. And that's what TechHire was designed to fill the gap on.
There is a formula here. You've got to have either a community college or other educational institutions, but you also have to have employers that are articulating what their specific needs are — what are the vacancies you need to fill? What are the skills you require? Do you need SQL certification? Do you need Microsoft certification? What are the actual specific skills? And then you need a city government that is willing to participate in that. That's a formula. That's not just, send 'em all to one school and hope it works.
We as a country have decided that unless you went to a four-year university, somehow you're not a full player in the economy. That's wrong. And as long as we continue to culturally stigmatize that, we're going to have a shortage of labor in key categories, we're going to have a lot of people get stuck assuming their job skills are going to take them on a 40 to 50 year career. For a lot of people, those days are gone.
This is not Washington declaring a death sentence on particular ways of life or particular industries. But there is a reality here, and that is that a lot of Americans are hurting and want a way out. The really hard question — and I don't have the answer, I don't think any one person does — is what you do with those individuals. I agree with you, the answer is not going to be “just train 'em to code.” That's not going to work. It is going to work in a lot of areas, but you're also going to have areas or job categories where mobility is not easy, where people want to stay tied to where they are.
The U.S. has a program to retrain workers who've lost their jobs due to trade; it's called Trade Adjustment Assistance. Could you see an Automation Adjustment Assistance program someday?
Yes. I could. And this is getting back to my theory that this is going to have to be an all-hands on deck thing. This is not just an issue for the government to take on. You're also going to have to get academia working on some of the questions you were raising before about what does work in job retraining. There's a role that employers are going to have in articulating what their particular needs are and reassessing their willingness to send jobs abroad. This is one of the biggest questions that we will be solving in the next 10-15 years.
Some high-profile folks in Silicon Valley have proposed that the government give everyone a basic amount of income every year as a solution. What do you think?
Most of our social programs are designed to make sure that if you need support you can get it, but that if you don't need support you're not automatically going to get a handout. That's a fundamental critique [of universal basic income] that the economists I respect the most have leveled against UBI. It has not been adequately addressed.
But the general awareness of UBI, the fact that it's become fashionable in Silicon Valley, is actually a really good sign. It shows they're thinking about the broader social consequences of the disruptive business models that they've put forward. And that's healthy.
President Obama has said that he resisted taking actions in cyberspace that could set a precedent legitimizing a potentially destructive form of cyberwarfare. Do you think China and Russia agree with that principle?
I believe the Chinese come at it from a general sense of profound insecurity, fear of almost mutually assured destruction of sorts and therefore a profound desire to try to put limitations on areas where it is not costly to them. That's where you think of arguments against intentionally targeting critical infrastructure. Don't go after dams. There's one that China, operator of the Three Gorges Dam, could probably agree with, along with the United States, and actually has said to us on occasion.
The Russians come at it from a different place. They have a strong history and tradition of talking to the United States about difficult things on which we don't agree. We managed to get nuclear arms control treaties out of the Russians to mutual accommodation.
Microsoft's top lawyers have proposed a kind of Geneva Conventions to govern cyberwarfare. Are we likely to see such an agreement out of this White House?
I don't think they have yet articulated a grand strategy of how they're going to treat these issues. But to me, as important as where the White House is will be where everyone else is. The United States is not a unitary actor in cyberspace. And if the Russians, the Chinese, the South Koreans, the Japanese, the Australians decide they want to come up with a pseudo-regional cybersecurity treaty, that's going to carry a lot of weight in the international system. The way the U.S. can guarantee it won't have a say is to withdraw from everything. That doesn't mean the progress is going to stop. The question is just whether the U.S. gets a voice or not.