Mnuchin said robots replacing jobs is 'not even on my radar screen' - here's why it should be

Trump's secretary says a robot crisis is far off
Trump's secretary says a robot crisis is far off

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is not worried about artificial intelligence displacing U.S. jobs for at least 50 to 100 years, he said Friday.

"I think that is so far in the future — in terms of artificial intelligence taking over American jobs — I think we're, like, so far away from that that," said Sec. Mnuchin at an event held by Axios. "Not even on my radar screen," he added.


But experts who have looked at the potential impact of AI on the workforce have said it is something that we should be thinking about now.

"As a society, we are now at a crucial juncture in determining how to deploy AI-based technologies in ways that promote, not hinder, democratic values such as freedom, equality, and transparency," found a Stanford University study released in September.

Here's why AI and automation should be on the radar screen of Mnuchin -- or any other government official concerned with the economy and jobs.

AI technology is already shaping the future

The leap from computing built on top of humans telling computers what to do, to computing built on computers learning how to act has important implications for every industry, wrote analysts at Goldman Sachs in a research note published in November. (Goldman is Mnuchin's former employer.)

"Artificial Intelligence is the apex technology of the information age," the analysts wrote. "Our research over the last year leads us to believe that this is not a false start, but an inflection point."

More and faster computing power, an explosion of data, innovation in deep learning, specialized hardware, and the growth of open source software are largely responsible, the analysts noted.

Millions of Americans will face challenges

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has estimated that 9 percent of U.S. jobs are at risk of being entirely displaced by AI, according to a White House report published in December.

"If these estimates of threatened jobs translate into job displacement, millions of Americans will have their livelihoods significantly altered and potentially face considerable economic challenges in the short-and medium-term," the report's authors noted.

Still, experts agree that in most cases specific tasks — versus entire jobs — are likely to be eliminated by AI. The impacts may be felt in the "not too distant future," across different roles — from radiologists to truck drivers to gardeners, the Stanford study found.

An oft-cited study by Oxford University's Carl Frey and Michael Osbourne found that 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at risk of being replaced by AI technologies and computerization over the next one to two decades.

Jobs most at risk from AI

The jobs most likely to be impacted in the near-term are low-skilled jobs held by people with a low level of education. The OECD has estimated that 44 percent of American workers holding less than a high school degree work in jobs made up of "highly-automatable" tasks, while just 1 percent of Americans holding a bachelor's degree or higher hold such jobs.

The White House Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) ranked occupations by wages and found that 83 percent of jobs making less than $20 per hour would come under pressure from automation, as compared to 31 percent of jobs making between $20 and $40 per hour and 4 percent of jobs making above $40 per hour.

Autonomous vehicles — like the self-driving cars that are already being road tested — could kill or at least dramatically alter between 2.2 and 3.1 million full-time and part-time U.S. jobs, the CEA has estimated. But not all driving jobs are equally susceptible to automation.

For instance, school bus drivers — responsible for both driving and minding children — are unlikely to see their jobs disappear. Those jobs "may evolve to focus heavily on the task of attending to children," the authors noted.

Non-driving tasks are less important in inter-city bus driver jobs, so autonomous vehicle technology is likely to take many of those jobs. For other workers like salespeople and inspectors, who spend many hours on the road, but whose primary job is not driving, AI could make them far more productive.

Jobs which require a high level of training are not immune from the impact of AI technology but are more likely to be augmented than replaced, experts agree.

For example, although most of a lawyer's job cannot be automated — yet — AI applied to extract information and model topics has automated parts of junior lawyers' jobs, according to the Stanford study.

Government has a significant role

Still, as AI replaces some jobs, it will create others and the government, private sector and individuals themselves all share responsibility to prepare for those new jobs, experts agree.

"While the ultimate effects on income levels and distribution are not inevitable, they depend substantially on government policies, on the way companies choose to organize work, and on decisions by individuals to invest in learning new skills and seeking new types of work and income opportunities," the Stanford study noted.

Though the fear of robots replacing human workers captures the imagination, most experts agree that there's no need to freak out. In the end, people's demands will keep changing -- leading to new kinds of jobs.

"My expectation is that it could be tumultuous impact but I don't think it is something that will leave us with a higher unemployment rate," said Goldman Sachs research internet analyst Heath Terry in the November report.