Treasury secretary doesn't see AI as a threat to jobs

At least not for another 50 to 100 years.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Anyone who's been paying attention to the rise of machine learning and artificial intelligence over the last decade likely will admit that those technologies are going to effect the economy in ways we can't fully predict quite yet. For treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin, however, it's apparently business as usual. In an interview today with Mike Allen from Axios, Mnuchin said that technology that could displace jobs was "50 to 100 more years" away and that the issue is "not even on my radar screen."

Mnuchin went on to clarify his comment a bit, noting that he doesn't think self-driving cars use artificial intelligence because "that's computers and using real technology we have today." It's a comment that shows his understanding of machine learning and AI to be rather short-sighted and outdated. Mnuchin said that he is thinking more about robots taking people's jobs, invoking the R2-D2 droid from Star Wars, saying that a self-driving car network is "very different from artificial, you know, R2-D2 taking over your job."

Overall, he said he's "not at all" worried about robots or AI displacing jobs in the short term. "in fact, I'm optimistic," he said, referring to the potential of technology to help "create productivity." That may be true -- but last December, the Obama administration released a detailed report that claimed automation and artificial intelligence could affect between nine and 47 percent of jobs over the next 10 to 20 years. There's a lot of room for ambiguity in that figure, but even the low end of estimates is still a notable impact.

Not surprisingly, the reaction to Mnuchin's comments from tech leaders came swiftly and with much condemnation. Futurist author Amy Web went on a tweetstorm in which she said that Mnuchin's comment was "one of the most misguided things I've heard from the Trump Admin so far." Indie developer Brian Mueller called his comments "dangerously incompetent," while former Clinton Administration official Larry Irving said that Mnuchin's view was "actually kind of frightening."

There will likely be plenty more comments condemning this viewpoint, as there are many examples of instances in which technology will start to replace jobs being done by humans. Just look at Amazon's grocery that doesn't need human cashiers, or the many companies working on delivery by drone -- and that's to say nothing of the impact the self-driving car will have, something Mnuchin did at least acknowledge. But when Bill Gates is proposing robot taxes to help humans find jobs when machines take over, it's pretty short-sighted not to consider that the impact of AI will be felt sooner than later.