By Ronald Wittek/Pool/Getty Images.
If there’s one thing that labor economists and leaders in Silicon Valley generally seem to agree on, it’s that increasingly sophisticated technology is coming to replace American jobs. According to a new report from PricewaterhouseCoopers, 38 percent of U.S. jobs are at high risk of being replaced by automation in the next 15 years, compared with 30 percent of jobs in the U.K. and 21 percent in Japan. The United States, like the United Kingdom, is dominated by service jobs in sectors like manufacturing, transportation, finance, and food service, and U.S. jobs are particularly at risk because, according to PwC’s chief U.K. economist John Hawksworth, the tasks American workers perform are just easier to automate.
Still, the White House seems completely uninterested in the imminent threat facing U.S. employment and wages, choosing to cast blame instead on China and Mexico for the decline of U.S. manufacturing jobs. “We want products made by our workers in our factories stamped with those four magnificent words—made in the U.S.A.,” President Donald Trump declared on a recent trip to a Boeing plant in South Carolina. The possibility that robots, not people, might soon be stamping those words—if they are not already—went unmentioned.
The rest of the Trump administration appears similarly unconcerned. During a Friday morning interview with Axios’s Mike Allen, U.S. treasury secretary (and executive producer of Academy Award-winning film Suicide Squad) Steven Mnuchin took some time out from gushing over the president’s “perfect genes” to downplay the threat of automation. The threat of artificial intelligence and robots supplanting American jobs, he said, is “not even on our radar screen,” adding that it’s likely “50 to 100 more years” away. “I’m not worried at all,” Mnuchin said. “In fact I’m optimistic.”
Venture capitalists flatly rejected Mnuchin’s assessment of the current state of A.I. and automation, and the impact they are already having on the U.S. job market. “Utterly shocking, just a willful disregard for the truth,” David Pakman, a partner with New York-based V.C. firm Venrock, told the Hive. “It appears his understanding of A.I. is rooted in science fiction. I’m going to presume he’s just uninformed, which is an unbelievably irresponsibly thing to be as Cabinet secretary. You needn’t be a computer scientist to understand the near-term impact A.I. will have on the labor force. It is not dramatic to say that certainly, in the next seven years possible for this administration, millions of jobs will be impacted.”
Hunter Walk, a partner at seed-stage V.C. firm Homebrew, agreed: “The misguided assumption that the employment impact of A..I is ‘50 to 100’ years away, puts the U.S. behind the curve from a policy standpoint.” He also suggested that the robotics revolution could present an incredible opportunity—but only if the government can begin retraining workers and redistributing productivity gains. “Imagine dual ‘moonshots’ that aimed to ensure America was the leader in A.I. and evolved our education system and social safety net,” Walk said. “These paths to collective prosperity and mobility strike me as more inspiring than palliative pronouncements.”
“If people are thinking about A.I. like what happens in the movie Ex Machina, maybe that is a ways off,” Aileen Lee, the founder of Cowboy Ventures told the Hive. “But A.I. and machine-learning-powered software already exists and is getting better every day, which will have impact on U.S. and global jobs in the next decade. Software has the potential to take over millions of jobs humans currently do—like inputting and reading data, buying and selling merchandise, driving cars, and even diagnosing patients.”
While Mnuchin remains optimistic about the idea that robots apparently aren’t replacing humans in jobs anytime soon, Silicon Valley is trying to come up with solutions for when the inevitable does happen. Tech experts like Bill Gates and Y Combinator president Sam Altman are pushing for solutions to offset the impact of the job displacement they fear is inevitable when robots take more jobs currently performed by humans. Altman has long been a proponent of universal basic income, which guarantees “a base level of financial support” for every person, regardless of their work status. And Gates wants to make companies that replace people with robots pay a tax, which could go toward redistributing the wealth.