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Denial of climate change, AI puts American economy on 'path to ruin,' Obama says

U.S President Barack Obama
Olivier Douliery | Pool | Getty Images
U.S President Barack Obama

Amid a contentious presidential race, U.S. president Barack Obama called out political rivals that seek to cut scientific funding on Thursday.

"That's why I get so riled up when I see people willfully ignore facts," Obama said from The White House Frontiers conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. "Or stick their heads in the sand about basic scientific consensus. It's not just that that position leads to bad policy. It's also that it undermines the very thing that has always made America the engine for innovation around the world."

Energy policy has been key in the presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, after an audience member at a recent town hall became an internet sensation with his question on energy policy. Trump has tweeted that global warming is a hoax, while fellow Republican Jim Inhofe produced a snowball in Congress last year, claiming it disproved global warming. Ben Carson, a republican presidential hopeful and neurosurgeon, also called the climate change debate "irrelevant."

"It's not just that they're saying climate change is a hoax, or taking a snowball on the Senate floor to prove that the planet's not getting warmer. It's that they're doing everything they can to gut funding for research and development."

Ignoring inconvenient scientific paths is the "path to ruin," Obama said from the conference, which was focused on building U.S. capacity in science, technology and innovation.

"Look, I only get two terms," Obama said. "Which is fine. The presidency is a relay race — we run our leg then we hand off the baton. That's why this conference isn't just about where we've been, but where we're going."

Curing cancer, finding new sources of energy, and adjusting to population growth will help America keep its economic lead, Obama said.

"Innovation is not a luxury that we do away with when we're tightening our belts," Obama said. "It's precisely at those moments when we've got real challenges that we double down on new solutions that can lead to new jobs, new industries and a larger economy."

Science needs to return to its "rightful place" in America, by bringing computer science to schools, Obama said.

"We are working to help all of our children understand that they, too, have a place in science and tech," Obama said. "Not just boys in hoodies, but girls in Native American reservations. Kids whose parents can't afford personal tutors ... we don't want them overlooked for a job in the future."

The conference was hosted by Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh.

Obama highlighted how Pittsburgh has bounced from back hard times for its steel industry by investing in innovation. Most recently, the city has made headlines as the testing site for Uber's self-driving cars.

"Stories like that are not just happening in Pittsburgh, or in Silicon Valley," Obama said. "They're happening in Chattanooga, and Charleston and Cincinnati."

The White House released a report on Wednesday on applications of AI for the public good. This week, Obama also advocated for the U.S. to send humans to Mars by the 2030s and return them safely to Earth. It comes after his budget for NASA has faced criticism from astronauts like Neil Armstrong.

Obama's Thursday speech comes at the heels of a new issued of Wired magazine edited by the sitting president. In the issue, Obama discusses "final frontiers," including the rising importance of making the economy more efficient using artificial intelligence, without eliminating jobs.

"Given the chance to immerse myself in the possibility of interplanetary travel or join a deep-dive conversation on artificial intelligence, I'm going to say yes," Obama wrote of the opportunity. "I love this stuff. Always have."