Citing ‘Star Wars,’ Trump’s treasury secretary revises claim about robots displacing humans

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday, and said that he misspoke two months ago when he said the threat of automation taking away jobs was “not even on our radar screen,” Axios reports.

“When I made the comment on artificial intelligence — and there’s different views on artificial intelligence — I was referring to kind of like R2-D2 in ‘Star Wars,'” Mnuchin said. “Robotics are here.”

There is a great deal of evidence that both robotics and AI could displace huge swaths of the American workforce in the next couple of decades.

During a March 24 Axios event, however, Mnuchin told the site’s cofounder Mike Allen that the threat of automation taking away jobs was negligible, and that the two-decade timetable grossly exaggerated what was likely “50 to 100 more years away.”

Studies have forecasted a spike in unemployment if the US doesn’t take steps to help workers as their jobs are scooped up by robots or AI. A 2015 McKinsey report, for instance, found that existing technology could feasibly replace 45% of work activities.

Mnuchin seemed unfazed by that data. “I’m not worried at all,” he said back in March. “In fact, I’m optimistic.”

During his recent testimony, Mnuchin clarified that certain forms of AI were on the administration’s radar screen. “Self-driving cars are something that are gonna be here soon,” he said. “I am fully aware of and agree that technology is changing and our workers do need to be prepared.”

During his campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly encouraged companies to “buy American, hire American.” And during his presidency, he has pledged to work with large corporations to keep jobs within US borders.

But as Business Insider’s Pedro da Costa has said, many of the jobs Trump wants to bring back have not been shipped overseas — they have been lost to the cheap, consistent labour of robots. In many industries, such as telemarketing, customer service, and fast-food service, humans can’t compete with the latest technology.

“No one should be under the illusion that millions of manufacturing jobs are coming back to America,” Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote in the MIT Technology Review in November.

At the March 24 event, Mnuchin also told Allen that Trump had “perfect genes” and an open-door policy at the White House, and that Trump deserved to be on a thousand-dollar bill.

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