This is the Job-Killer the Trump Team Should Worry About, Obama Adviser Says


Nextgov chatted with Terah Lyons, formerly an adviser to the federal chief technology officer.

Artificial intelligence is poised to make instances of human labor obsolete, and it’s not yet clear what governments can do to protect the people who will lose their jobs.

As Barack Obama’s presidential term wound down in December, his tech team published a report urging the incoming administration to take “aggressive policy action” to “help Americans who are disadvantaged by these changes" and also to make sure "the enormous benefits of AI and automation are developed by and available to all.”

But it’s not yet clear that President Donald Trump’s White House is taking the hint, according to Terah Lyons, former technology policy adviser within the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Lyons, who co-authored the report, chatted with Nextgov in advance of our artificial intelligence-themed Tech + Tequila meetup.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Nextgov: I was surprised to see such an overt policy recommendation from the Obama White House to the incoming administration, urging them to protect the people whose jobs may be made obsolete by artificial intelligence. Was that your intent?

Terah Lyons: We ended up developing the second AI report in the waning days of the Obama administration ... [part of] the administration’s efforts around public outreach and stakeholder conversations around this issues.

That sort of public outreach process culminated in the writing of the first AI report, which was an interagency effort. From that process, we realized we needed more concerted thinking around the specific issue of AI-based automation and its impact on the economy, its impact on labor.

The purpose really was to sort of provide a slate of opportunities and challenges, and also policy recommendations, associated with those issue areas for this incoming administration. The timing of the report really indicated that. It was very much intended ... to be a sort of layup to this incoming administration and to provide them with the context, and a policy environment, in which to have some of those conversations.

Nextgov: Are other countries more advanced in this area? What have other governments decided is their responsibility to protect citizens who lose their jobs to automation or artificial intelligence?

Lyons: Certainly, the opinion we held in the last admin is this is an important question for policymakers to consider. This needs to be a discussion that is multidisciplinary and brings together experts from many different spectrums, including in economic policy, tech policy, people from industry and academia, and even those who might be affected by this new wave of technology.

From a solution setting perspective, this is a nascent area of policymaking. What we haven’t seen yet are large-scale dramatic impacts, and it’s not to say those aren’t coming. ... There’s a global conversation that has been percolating.

There have some policy experiments, especially in Northern Europe. Finland just started an experiment with some sort of universal basic income policy. A lot of these macroeconomic theories haven’t been tested out in practice yet, and sort of need to be piloted in certain ways before they’re implemented at a broad scale.

Something that might work for Finland very well, it’s possible the same experiment applied to the U.S. could in fact not [pan] out very positively because we have a federated system, we have more diverse demographics.

Nextgov: Do you think the incoming administration is making this a priority?

Lyons: I don’t necessarily think it’s clear that science and technology policy in general, or even economic policy issues, are a priority given that they have not appointed a director for the Office of Science and Technology Policy, given that they haven’t appointed a chief technology officer for the United States ... [or] a chair for the president’s Council of Economic advisers.

Until they get leadership and some technical and economic talent in the White House, it’s not clear to me that this issue is a priority for them at all.

Nextgov: Are there ways the private sector can step up if the White House doesn’t make it a priority?

Lyons: There are mechanisms we have seen. Some of those include institutional arrangements where companies really take it upon themselves to up-skill, or retrain workers, within their own workforces, to make sure they have a workforce that’s prepared to take on the jobs they’re creating for them.

A lot of questions have been ... around how we pay more attention to more of the country on a more consistent basis. ... Really thinking critically about how they might be impacted by automation is going to be important. That’s a job the academic community can contribute to, as well as the private sector.