Why Getting A Head Start On Automation Is Necessary

April 19th, 2017

By Rishon Blumberg, 10x Management Co-Founder

There’s been a lot of talk recently about Donald Trump’s lack of concern with artificial intelligence. Trump has ignored mentioning AI in any economic context, instead focusing on protecting American workers from foreign competition. Tactical decisions like this, in my opinion, could have far-reaching negative consequences for American innovation and the American economy in the long run.

Here are a few reasons why Trump’s stance is troubling:

  • Self-Driving Cars: Trump gets to choose who heads the National Highway Traffic Safety Agency. This will have a real impact on how self-driving cars are regulated over the next 4 years. If Trump chooses someone who ignores technology, then consider the United States 4 years behind where it should be on thinking about autonomous vehicles. 4 years is a long time to catch up on!
  • Trade: Trump has made it a cornerstone of his policy to put up trade barriers, especially with China, in order to protect American workers from losing jobs to foreign labor. With the advancement of automation and AI, what happens when American workers are no longer losing their jobs to foreign workers, but to automation? Trump could make seriously misguided policy decisions by misreading the market.
  • The Fed: If AI has a significant negative impact on demand and employment, it is the responsibility of the Fed to stabilize the American economy. While the Fed is an independent body, Trump has some influence over the Chairman, especially considering Janet Yellen’s term is over on February 3, 2018. This means Trump could choose Yellen’s successor and nominate someone who is more in line with his views. If his views do not take into account automation, he may choose someone who feels the same way.     

Let’s take a look at how AI could negatively affect employment through two industries: driving and cashiers. There are approximately 3.5 million professional truck drivers in the United States today, and approximately 1 million taxi, Uber, school bus and transit bus drivers. We already know that self-driving cars are on the way, which could lead to 4.5 million jobs being displaced by technology.

There are approximately 3.4 million cashiers in the United States. Amazon is currently developing brick and mortar stores that use machine learning and artificial intelligence to eliminate the need of a cashier. Customers can walk into the store, pick up items, and walk out. Sounds like a dream, and it won’t be long before other retailers follow suit. But this could displace millions of cashiers.  

Between these two industries, that’s nearly 8 million jobs that could all be replaced by automation. That’s 5% of the labor force!

The threat of automation to jobs in the United States is very real. So how can Trump’s administration tackle this threat? First of all, by acknowledging its existence. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin claiming that automation will not be a threat to American workers for 50 to 100 years is such a misguided statement it’s laughable.    

One of the biggest problems with the Trump administration’s stance is that in order for AI to progress, it needs to learn. Machine learning is a huge part of AI, and technology can only learn through experience and training. It sounds funny to say, but technology is capable of learning. How are we supposed to get a head start and train machines to learn if AI is not on Trump’s radar screen? The government has the ability to incentivize AI programs and fast-track progress. But sadly, this administration does not seem intent on doing that.

Ignoring AI now means the United States will lag behind more forward-thinking countries that invest in AI today. While the United States waits “50 to 100 years” for AI to become a reality of life, other countries will be doing the hard work, laying the necessary infrastructure, and gaining from the machine learning, and the human learning that goes along with it. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t see how one day, 50 years from now, the United States can just push a button and say, “Okay, now that AI is advanced enough, we can adopt it.” The rewards of AI will go to those that put in the work and infrastructure to make artificial intelligence happen.

Case in point: in the 80s and 90s when AI hadn’t reached the success that most were hoping for, many companies and institutions shut down funding. But Canadian universities provided grants and kept research alive. Today, Canada is garnering the rewards of that faith. AI companies like Microsoft, Google, and Facebook are all looking to Canadian teams to advance their research. The bottom line is that Canada has a head start because it saw AI coming and persevered. Hypothetically, let’s say Mnuchin is right. Let’s say we won’t feel the impacts of AI on our lives for another 50 years. That’s still not a reason to ignore AI right now. Think about all of the learning we can do and the data we can collect to get ahead of the rest of the world. Anticipating a change like AI is what makes an economy like America’s the most innovative, forward-moving economy in the world.

If you liked this article, you might enjoy reading Trump’s Labor Policies Fail to Account for the Rise of Automation