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Mnuchin: Automation Won't Replace Human Labor For 50 Plus Years, Analysts Disagree
Updated March 28, 2017 6:32 AM
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(NEW YORK) - Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was asked on Friday about how seriously he takes the threat of artificial intelligence displacing American workers and when he thinks that might happen.

"I think we're like, so far away from that," he said, adding it is "not even on my radar screen."

Luke Vargas, of Talk Media News ( reports, Mnuchin predicted it would be "fifty or a hundred more years" before humans begin to be replaced by robots.

Analysts don't agree with him.

The consulting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers released a report Friday predicting that within 15 years, close to 40 percent of U.S. jobs could be lost to automation. A 2014 Pew survey of nearly 2,000 tech experts found that half forecast major blue and white-color job displacement by 2025, far earlier than Mnuchin predicted.

"You're already seeing AI and machine learning impact jobs," Devin Fidler, director of the Workable Futures Initiative at the Institute for the Future, told TMN.

Fidler said the rapid growth of Uber into the world's third-largest employer in just over a decade speaks for the power of technology to transform large swathes of the economy. While Uber is still paying human drivers, combining automated dispatch technology with automated vehicles could put millions of drivers out of work.

"If you think about self-driving vehicles and how they could impact the three-and-a-half million truckers in the United States - that's something that this administration is going to have to address," he said.

Not everyone thinks AI are automation present existential crises.

"I worry more about not enough automation and not enough investment in capital equipment like robots or like AI systems that can help us do our jobs better," said Adams Nager, an economic policy analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

Mnuchin seemed to share that view, pointing out that "technology has helped productivity."

But just because robots and other technologies can make human workers become more efficient, that doesn't mean they will, or that the United States will lead the world in workforce efficiency.

"If you look at what automation and what robotics should do is make human labor more productive. And if you look at human labor productivity rates in the U.S. in the last five years, we have not grown almost at all."

"We're averaging around half a percent of growth each year," Nager said.

One way to help boost those numbers would be to spend more on so-called STEM education, which spans the disciples of science, technology, engineering and math. Efforts to modernize education in the United States may take years to come to fruition, but they increase the liklihood that American companies will become world leaders in inventing new technologies, especially those that complement the U.S. economy.

Unfortunately, those investments in STEM and other efforts to retrain workers for 21st century jobs aren't occurring fast enough, Nager said.

"Currently we spend as a nation about one-sixth of the OECD [Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development] average - the average of developed countries - on workforce training programs, on helping people adjust to technology. That kind of investment could play a major role in helping to start economic development in places like rural Ohio or other places in the Rust Belt."

"When Americans worry about a robot taking their jobs, what they should be worrying about is a robot in China or Germany or Japan taking their jobs."

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