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Give Mnuchin a Break

March 30, 2017, 11:36 AM UTC

Good morning.

There’s been a lot of chatter in the past week about the relationship between technology and jobs. A report from PwC on Friday said 38% of U.S. jobs are at “high risk” of being automated by 2030. A study from the National Bureau of Economic Research yesterday said that between 1990 and 2007, the addition of one robot to the workforce led to the loss of 6.2 jobs. And Maureen Dowd’s profile of Elon Musk in Vanity Fair has him musing again about artificial intelligence as an “existential threat” to humanity.

Worried yet? All of this has put into high relief comments made by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin last week, who, when asked by Mike Allen of Axios whether he was worried about AI displacing jobs, replied: “not at all…I think we are so far away from that” — 50 or 100 years — “it’s not even on my radar screen.”

Mnuchin’s reported comments prompted outrage, including a column by his predecessor as Treasury Secretary, Lawrence Summers, comparing his views to climate change denial.

Curious, I went back and watched the video of the interview, and came away convinced Mnuchin has gotten a bum rap. The core of the misunderstanding is the term “artificial intelligence,” which is used so broadly and vaguely these days as to be almost meaningless. Mnuchin was clearly using the term to refer human-like, generalized intelligence, which many AI experts do believe is 50 years or more away.

As for his optimism… well, he was expressing a belief shared by most economists: that technology-based, labor-saving investments are the path to productivity gains, which in turn are the route to wage increases. “A robot that folds towels so our workers can be doing higher-productivity jobs….that’s a great thing.” He also volunteered twice that the U.S. needs to “invest in education and training” so that people have the skills necessary to do those jobs.

Take a look at the interview in full, here. I’m more worried than Mnuchin that the rapid pace of technological change will be disruptive to the workforce. I would have liked him to spend more time on how we boost education and training fast enough to deal with that disruption. And I certainly think President Trump has been remiss by focusing so much on trade as a disruptive force, and so little on technology.

But climate denial? Hardly.