Skynet Domestic Product

President Obama is worried about robots taking your job, not your life

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Good news: President Obama isn’t worried that self-aware robots are going to take over the planet and kill off humans.

Obama discussed the topic in a wide-ranging interview about artificial intelligence with WIRED editor-in-chief Scott Dadich and MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito. The interview coincided with the release of a White House report on the future of AI that’s been several months in the making. Obama makes clear off the bat that, unlike some members of the tech elite, he’s pretty nonplussed at the idea of hyper-aware computers coming for us:

There’s a distinction, which is probably familiar to a lot of your readers, between generalized AI and specialized AI. In science fiction, what you hear about is generalized AI, right? Computers start getting smarter than we are and eventually conclude that we’re not all that useful, and then either they’re drugging us to keep us fat and happy or we’re in the Matrix. My impression, based on talking to my top science advisers, is that we’re still a reasonably long way away from that.

Good job, science advisers. While Ito does note later on in the interview that “a few people” believe we’re on the verge of generalized AI, they’re not the norm. Plus, as the new White House report helpfully points out, a recent review of 95 technology forecasts from the past half century showed that people have been saying generalized AI was coming within 10 or 20 years since 1950. If it does emerge, the President advises having “somebody close to the power cord” to shut it down if things go haywire.

Obama is focused on the economic implications of AI. “Because most people aren’t spending a lot of time right now worrying about singularity,” he said. “They are worrying about ‘Well, is my job going to be replaced by a machine?'”

This is fair, since automation has displaced jobs before, continues to do so, and comes up frequently in policy debates. Interestingly, the White House’s new report punts on the issue a little. The authors acknowledge that “AI’s central economic effect in the short term will be the automation of tasks that could not be automated before,” and that there’ll need to be policy to deal with job loss, but they don’t feel prepared to say what those policies should be.

“The economic policy questions raised by AI-driven automation are important but they are best addressed by a separate White House working group,” they say, recommending a follow-up report be published by the end of 2016. (Start that clock.)

Obama is less cautious in his WIRED interview, but still speaks very broadly, referring to “redesigning the social compact” and alluding to universal basic income, where people would be paid a certain amount just for being alive, but not endorsing the idea. He also talks about broadly readjusting how we value certain work and jobs:

What is indisputable, though, is that as AI gets further incorporated, and the society potentially gets wealthier, the link between production and distribution, how much you work and how much you make, gets further and further attenuated—the computers are doing a lot of the work. As a consequence, we have to make some tougher decisions. We underpay teachers, despite the fact that it’s a really hard job and a really hard thing for a computer to do well. So for us to reexamine what we value, what we are collectively willing to pay for—whether it’s teachers, nurses, caregivers, moms or dads who stay at home, artists, all the things that are incredibly valuable to us right now but don’t rank high on the pay totem pole—that’s a conversation we need to begin to have.

Nurses unions or the Wages for Housework movement may be surprised to hear him refer to it as a conversation we should “begin” to have, but it is interesting to hear a sitting president, albeit an outgoing one, suggesting a potentially large-scale reevaluation of labor capital. Let’s see what he does to push that forward when he’s out of office.