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Treasury secretary ‘not at all’ worried about robots taking jobs

Treasury secretary ‘not at all’ worried about robots taking jobs

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German Finance Minister Schaeuble Meets New U.S. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin
Photo by Michele Tantussi/Getty Images

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin says he’s “not at all” worried about robots displacing American workers, and his definition of artificial intelligence comes from Star Wars. In an interview today with Axios’ Mike Allen, Mnuchin said he was unconcerned about the effects of automation, both with physical machines and artificial intelligence. “In terms of artificial intelligence taking over American jobs, I think we're so far away from that that it's not even on my radar screen,” he said in response to a question from Allen. “I think it's 50 or 100 more years.”

When pressed, Mnuchin said that he wasn’t talking about things like self-driving cars, which he believes could run from coast to coast in the not-so-distant future. “That to me isn't artificial intelligence, that's computers and using real technology we have today,” he said. “But those types of things are very real. That's very different from artificial [intelligence], you know, R2-D2 taking over your job.”

“That's very different from ... R2-D2 taking over your job.”

He also doesn’t think that robots will put Americans out of jobs in either the short or long term. “Quite frankly, I'm optimistic. I mean, that's what creates productivity. And what we need to do, we need to invest in training, we need to invest in education,” said Mnuchin, whose administration has proposed cutting the Department of Education’s budget by 13.5 percent. In fact, he’s “not at all” worried, he told Allen. “If anything what it's done is, it's taken jobs that are low-paying jobs.”

Some people might just be happy Mnuchin isn’t throwing the “AI” buzzword around toothbrushes and washing machines, and he’s actually reflecting a common idea about AI: that “intelligence is whatever machines haven't done yet.” But he’s also avoiding discussing the ramifications of “real technology that we have today,” either through deliberate evasion or ignorance.

Nobody is precisely sure how automation, whether in the form of simple robots or complex machine learning, will affect the economy. But most people aren’t outright dismissing short-term job loss either — something, again, that Mnuchin was specifically asked about. A December report from the White House cited studies that estimate automation will affect between 9 percent and 47 percent of jobs over the next 10 to 20 years.

Mnuchin is right that lower-paying positions are disproportionately affected by these changes. He’s also making the common (and plausible) pro-AI argument that workers will transition into better, higher-paying work. But that’s exactly the kind of argument that Trump advisor Peter Thiel claims makes Silicon Valley out of touch. And the Trump administration doesn’t say people whose jobs moved overseas should simply train for new ones. If the administration wants to prove that creating American jobs is more than just a xenophobic talking point, it will need to stop relegating questions about technology to a galaxy far, far away.