Politicians Aren’t Talking About the Biggest Challenge to the Labor Market

Automation might be the biggest challenge to the future labor market, but policymakers seem to have their sights set elsewhere.

Whenever Nigel Cameron gets into an Uber or Lyft, he says to the driver, “You do realize you’re just cannon fodder here, right?”

Cameron, the president and CEO of the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies (C-PET), isn’t trying to be rude—he’s trying to prepare them for an imminent reality. Jobs as drivers are among those at risk of becoming obsolete because of automation, and the ridesharing sector could be one of the first industries to see that evolution take place. Two years ago, Uber announced that it was partnering with researchers at Carnegie Mellon University to create the Advanced Technologies Group Center. Since then, the company’s self-driving engineering team has, like Google and Apple, been working hard to make driverless cars a reality.

There are different theories as to how much automation will affect the workforce in the coming years. A 2013 study conducted by two Oxford economists, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, concluded that 47 percent of today’s U.S. jobs are at risk of what they call “computerisation.” Yet a 2016 study conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that across countries, 9 percent of jobs are at high risk of being automated. Either way, what’s clear is that automation’s impact will be felt. The OECD study, after all, found that half of the tasks for another 25 percent of contemporary jobs will change significantly because of technological advances.

When Cameron proceeds to converse with the drivers, some are truly shocked when they learn more about self-driving cars and automation. Others, he says, are “quite savvy” about improvements in self-driving cars. Still others just think he’s crazy or impolite. But it’s the drivers who are shocked who convince Cameron to keep calling for a national discussion on how automation will affect the workplace. The United States, he argues, isn’t adequately preparing for the inevitable shift from human labor to technological labor.

In his new book, Will Robots Take Your Job? Cameron argues that politicians and policymakers have resisted talking about that very question. No leader, Cameron says, wants to be analogized to the Industrial Age’s Luddites—English workers who destroyed cotton and woolen mills out of fear that those machines would take their jobs.

I spoke with Cameron about why leaders seem to have avoided these conversations, what a government that integrates technology and politics might look like, and how effective today’s STEM curricula are at preparing people for the changing workforce. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Lola Fadulu: What is C-PET’s goal?

Nigel Cameron: Essentially, what we try to do is to raise long-term questions in Washington about the impact of technology on jobs, which is always something of a challenge in the world's leading short-term city.

Fadulu: The Trump administration has been fairly preoccupied with health care, immigration, and the mainstream media. Is there room for talk about the impact of automation on the workforce?

Cameron: The Trump administration has come in looking at trade issues, the export of jobs, and immigration as the fundamental challenges in labor markets. But they seem to have no interest in what certainly has a chance of being a far bigger labor-market challenge, which of course is automation.

I sat through every single one of the debates of the past election and there was not one question on robots taking jobs. So I think this [silence about the issue] is totally bipartisan. But I think it's a big problem with the current administration, which is likely to be there for four years, maybe even eight years. This is going to be an absolutely crucial period in setting the pattern for how we talk about the question of robots taking jobs. Donald Trump is focused entirely on other labor-market challenges.

Fadulu: Why do you think the administration is focused on other labor-market challenges?

Cameron: It's partly because of American politics. [America] probably more than any other democratic country tends to be backward-looking. And that’s just to say the agenda is almost always an agenda [made with past issues in mind]. I think this is one of the reasons there's an enormous gap between the culture of Washington and the culture of Silicon Valley, where people talk about the [future-oriented] technology questions all the time. But the culture of Washington is locked into the past. So anything which is changing and changing fast finds it almost impossible to get a look at.

Fadulu: Do you think that it will be possible to carve out space in Washington for thinking specifically about the future of education and jobs? What do you think needs to happen in order for that to be possible?

Cameron: I think a long-term question which is a very interesting one is: When will we move the federal government to the West Coast? The entire federal city. I think that's going to happen. I think if it happens sooner rather than later, I think it will be good for America and China and so on and so forth. It's partly to do with the fact that we're now a Pacific Power more than an Atlantic Power. It's partly to do with the technology and creative culture of the West Coast. But we can make a start by moving Camp David, by Mr. Trump flying West for his golf weekends rather than going South to what remains of Florida.

Fadulu: If the federal government moves to Silicon Valley, maybe we'll find a nice middle ground between focusing on the past and future.

Cameron: I think you will get a hybrid culture emerging. Far more realism about the past comes from Washington. A realism about the future comes from the Valley culture.

It's very curious: These are the two most powerful collections of zip codes in the world.  They're both very small places, but you bring these cultures into some sort of alignment with each other, and I think you've got the possibility of building a new America. But I'm not very confident it's going to happen.

Fadulu: And why aren’t you confident it will happen?

Cameron: For example, President Obama hired some very smart people from the Valley to go and work for him in various roles. When Obama came in, there was talk in the campaign of having a Chief Information Officer (CIO) or Chief Technology Officer (CTO) in the cabinet. Which would have been quite revolutionary, because this person would have been able to hold sway over all of the different departments and agencies.

He comes in and he appoints various CIOs and CTOs and they're all sort of 32 years old and they know budgets. And they go around making speeches about how important the Cloud is. And then, of course, you get these absolute disasters like the healthcare.gov hack and the OPM [Office of Personnel Management] hack. The OPM hack was five years into the Obama administration, and everyone knew that OPM, which had this enormously valuable record, was the clunkiest agency in the federal government. They were using code from 25 years ago and so on and so forth.

But it's typical in Washington. The gap between the message and the reality is enormous. So I think in a sense you had eight years, a terrific opportunity there, but there was no actual real command or understanding of [technological] issues.

Of course with the current administration, we have a guy who knows how to use Twitter but doesn't know how to use a laptop. He's an old guy in his attitudes and assumptions and so on. So I think [the lack of political embrace of technology] may be generational. At the moment, both parties in Washington, they are run by old-timers.

Fadulu: So, maybe we can’t depend on the federal government to get people talking about automation. But toward the end of your book, you talk about the importance of preparing people using the education system. Do you know of some programs that prepare both young and old people for the impact of automation?

Cameron: I think it's quite naïve to believe that STEM is the answer. This is a sort of knee-jerk thing, it's a mantra. I think there are various reasons why that's the case.

On one level, look at the system of public education here in the US. They've made enormous efforts to make all sorts of changes with all sorts of testing and we've had a marginal impact on things, over many years. We've made endless efforts to improve, specifically to improve the STEM end. The impacts have been quite marginal.

Obviously, it takes two decades to run another generation through the educational system: people entering now won’t be leaving for another 20 years. If we shift our educational system so that it’s actually going to produce a lot more people with technical skills in the STEM area, they will be arriving at just the point robots will have taken over our machines.

So I think we've shown that it's very difficult to change public education in any significant way. That doesn't mean to say you can't add on extra programs and so on, but in terms of turning the ship around this has proved something which is extraordinarily hard to do. The PricewaterhouseCoopers [PwC] report says in 15 years, 38 percent of U.S. jobs are going to go. So this is not, “Well let's invest in the new generation of teachers.” This is quick.

But secondly, I think [the focus on] STEM is naïve specifically because the jobs that will go first are the STEM jobs. The kind of skills that will certainly survive so far as we can see are things like entrepreneurship, things evolving into personal skills, jobs in bringing people and machines together, helping people work with the machines and the machines work with the people—interface jobs. These are human-type jobs in which human skills, human capacities, understanding people— these are the sort of things that machines are going to find much harder to do. I think we all need to understand machines. So yes, we all need to do some STEM stuff. But the notion that pushing STEM creates more secure jobs, I think it's fallacy.

Fadulu: Then, if the government and the education system aren’t the answers, how do we prepare others for the changing workplace? Do you think there are enough people who are already educated and aware about the future impact of automation on the workforce to raise awareness about the consequences?

Cameron: No, I think we're just scratching the surface. I think it's very disturbing. There should be hundreds of books out there talking about this kind of stuff. Part of the problem is a lot of the experts, such as Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, who have talked about this have kind of felt themselves obliged to reassure people and say “Don't worry.”  They’re smart people and I admire their work but we need people like them getting people worried.

I don’t know what’s going to happen. There is a chance, and not an insignificant chance, that there could be a disaster. If we don’t know what’s going to happen, yet there could be a disaster, we should be worried and prepared for it. But I think we've barely made a beginning [in tackling these questions about how to prepare people for a changing workplace], and I think this is at least as important as climate [change]. And when people are as exercised about this as they are about climate, then I'll feel I can relax a bit.