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.