Governments are recklessly putting their heads in the sand about automation

Image credit: Shiny Things / Flickr

Don’t worry, it’s all going to be fine! Automation, A.I., robots… they’re not going to take our jobs and worrying about it is very silly indeed!

…Well, that’s what the people in charge of the USA and UK’s public finances are saying, anyway.

US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, to Axios’ Mike Allen, yesterday:

On AI supplanting human jobs: “it’s not even on our radar screen…. 50–100 more years” away. “I’m not worried at all” about robots displacing humans in the near future, he said, adding: “In fact I’m optimistic.”

UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, earlier in the week:

“The shorthand typists have gone, but I don’t see people sitting around idle,” he said. “As one area of human activity is rendered redundant, other areas are created, and the kind of technological revolution we’re on the brink of will create as many jobs as it destroys.”

This is dangerous talk from people with steering hands on two of the world’s biggest economies.

Yes, history has taught us that as one set of skills becomes irrelevant, new jobs emerge to replace them. Yet past performance is not an indicator of future results. Just because it all worked out fine in the past, doesn’t mean this next big upheaval will be painless.

At a time when the world is changing faster than ever, politicians need to have an eye on the what the world might be like further down the line than the next general election.

What we should be hearing from our leaders is something along the lines of:

“One risk we’re keeping a close eye on is automation replacing jobs at a rate that far outstrips job creation.

“While we can’t say this will definitely happen, it’s important we plan for the possibility. That’s why we’re commissioning an in-depth report on the topic, drawing on a wide range of economic perspectives, and experimenting with ideas like universal basic income. This may not be something we’ll ever need to move ahead with but it’s important we’re prepared.”

Nothing in this world is certain, but sticking your head in the sand and saying everything’s fine is an irresponsible approach to our future prosperity.