Hillary Clinton has warned that the US is “totally unprepared” for the economic and societal effects of artificial intelligence. Speaking to radio host Hugh Hewitt this week in an interview promoting her recent book, the former Secretary of State said the world was “racing headfirst into a new era of artificial intelligence” that would affect “how we live, how we think, [and] how we relate to each other.”
In a short segment near the end of the interview, Clinton told Hewitt: “A lot of really smart people, you know, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, a lot of really smart people are sounding an alarm that we’re not hearing. And their alarm is artificial intelligence is not our friend.” Clinton then mentioned two specific areas of impact: digital surveillance (when “everything we know and everything we say and everything we write is, you know, recorded somewhere”) and job automation.
“What are we going to do when we get driverless cars?” she asked. “It sounds like a great idea. And how many millions of people, truck drivers and parcel delivery people and cab drivers and even Uber drivers, what do we do with the millions of people who will no longer have a job? We are totally unprepared for that.”
A little confusingly, Clinton’s remarks conflated a few separate focuses of AI anxiety. For example, although Musk and Hawking have sounded the alarm bells about artificial intelligence, they’re primarily worried about the hypothetical threat from super-intelligent computers, not the near-term effects of automation. And while it’s true that AI is being used to increase the effectiveness of digital surveillance, this trend was established well before the contemporary machine learning boom. See, for example, the use of intrusive surveillance programs such as PRISM by the US government.
On the economic impact of AI, though, Clinton is right to be worried. For years, economists and academics have been warning that advances in machine learning and robotics are going to have a dramatic effect on job markets. The threat, they say, is not only to skilled and unskilled manual labor, but also white-collar professions like law and accounting. Although experts disagree on exactly how serious or long-lasting the effects will be, it’s clear this is a problem that needs more attention. One recent study suggested that for every new industrial robot installed in a given commuting area, between 3 and 5.6 jobs are permanently lost.
And in the competition for AI supremacy with China — another area of concern for the US — experts are unanimous that the country is in danger of falling behind. This is a particular concern because of the Trump administration’s determination to cut funding for basic scientific research. One expert described the proposed Republican budget plans as “alarming and counterproductive,” while Alphabet chairman Eric Schmidt said earlier this month the US government needs to “get [its] act together” before China overtakes for good.
In her interview, Clinton didn’t discuss any details of specific policies she would like to see enacted, but said the government needed to act quickly. “One thing I wanted to do if I had been president was to have a kind of blue ribbon commission with people from all kinds of expertise coming together to say what should America’s policy on artificial intelligence be?” She added: “We can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”