Our New Computer Overlords

The current President and his cabinet have said a lot of confounding things over these past 100 days or so, but one comment struck me as especially curious. During an interview last month, former hedge-fund manager and current Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin was asked about artificial intelligence and its potential impact on the American work force. Mnuchin was immediately dismissive. He said the prospect of AI replacing American jobs was “not even on my radar screen” and that it likely wouldn’t be an issue for another hundred years. This statement is at odds with everything I have ever read on the subject. As I’ve explained in several previous posts (links here and here), artificial intelligence and AI-driven automation are advancing in dramatic fashion. Science magazine recently devoted a special issue to the subject, and MIT Technology Review predicts major advances in the immediate future. Mnuchin’s flippant attitude toward AI was ridiculed in the press (links here and here), with former Treasury Secretary (and former Harvard president) Lawrence Summers decrying Mnuchin’s position as “indefensible” in a WaPo op-ed. Mnuchin’s disregard for AI is especially surprising when one recalls that the Obama administration issued a report on “Automation, Artificial Intelligence, and the Economy” a mere five months ago. The report famously stated that around half (!) of all American jobs could be replaced by AI and AI-driven automation within the next twenty years. President Obama even referenced the topic in his farewell address a few weeks later, stating that “the next wave of economic dislocation won’t come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes many good, middle-class jobs obsolete.” It reminded me of President Eisenhower’s grave warning about the military-industrial complex in his own farewell address decades earlier.

People respond to these developments in different ways. Stephen Hawking has warned that artificial intelligence is one of the greatest threats to our species, and that we should engineer safeguards to ensure humans retain control. Just last month, the suddenly ubiquitous Elon Musk invested hundreds of millions in a new company that hopes to merge brains with computers. It’s the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” strategy. And then there’s Ken Jennings, the all-time Jeopardy! champion, who battled IBM’s Watson on the game-show back in 2011. When it became clear that he was going to lose to his inanimate competitor, the ever-pragmatic Jennings quipped that he, for one, “welcomed our new computer overlords.” In other words, there are many ways one can respond to the pending robot revolution, but ignoring or dismissing the situation is not a viable option.