Universal income vs the robots: Meet the presidential candidate fighting automation

Andrew Yang announced he is vying for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination back in February. His mission? Preparing America for automation.

But how is he going to do that? I got the chance to sit down with him at the Work Awesome conference in New York yesterday to ask him about his stances on trucking automation, AI policy, and, his favorite topic, universal basic income (UBI).

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Erin: Why focus on automation and UBI? They aren’t common topics for presidential candidates.

Andrew: The reason why I’m focused on this issue is I’m convinced it’s driving the social, economic and political dysfunction we are seeing. The reason why Donald Trump is our president today is we automated away four million manufacturing jobs in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Iowa, all the swing states he needed to win and did win. And everyone who works in technology knows full well we are about to do the same to millions of retail workers, call center workers, fast food workers, truck drivers and on and on throughout the economy.

For me, there was no choice in the matter. It wasn’t like, I’m going to run for president and I’m going to decide which issue to focus on. I’m running for president because I know that we’re in the third inning of the greatest economic transformation of industry in the world and that our politicians don’t understand it all.

Do you view automation as something that is bringing primarily negative change to the US?

I tend to focus on truck driving because it’s something people understand. We should be celebrating the possible automation of truck driving as a job because it would save thousands of lives—about 4,000 Americans die in accidents due to truckers every year.

But, on the flip side, you have 3.5 million Americans who drive trucks for a living. Yes, it will potentially cause riots and mass strife, especially when you consider there are an additional five million Americans who work at truck stops, motels, and diners who rely on the trucks stopping. So it’s overly simplistic to say is automation a good thing or is automation a bad thing. My mission as president is to make it as good of a thing as it can be for as many people as possible.

What is the time frame you see for these changes to the trucking industry? Because there’s a shortage of workers in trucking right now, and some think these technologies could help solve this shortage.

There are massive trucker shortages. It’s a very difficult turnover-prone job because it’s a very hard job on your body. That’s actually going to hasten the automation of the job, because they say, “it looks like we are missing half a million people, so let’s get to automating this.”

The time frame you are looking at, the experts tell me, is five to 10 years away. We will see a hybrid model at first. To start you are going to have a human driver in one truck and a robot truck following. But before long you will see mini conveys, and the human beings getting into the cab of the truck 15 miles out of a densely-populated urban area.

You are well known for being an advocate for UBI as a solution to automation. What information and data do you think is needed to test and better validate UBI as a possible solution?

It’s wrong to think we don’t have information on this. We do. There have been many implementations of basic income-aligned programs over the last number of decades. I was blown away when I looked at the data. The data was very clear that putting money into people’s hands improves their way of life and it is to me the single biggest and most effective move we can make as a country to help manage the transition we are in.

Obviously, UBI has a huge cost attached to it. If UBI was put in place, do you think there would also be a need for an additional allocation of resources for things beyond it to deal with automation? Like apprenticeship or digital training programs?

I’m a huge fan of investing in technical and vocational training and apprenticeship programs. But even if we were able to execute them at the highest levels, that would take years, maybe even decades. And during that time we are going to eliminate millions of the most common jobs in the economy. So we have to be realistic about what we can accomplish and in what time frame. It’s much more feasible to modify our capital flows than it is to overhaul over dysfunctional educational system or train millions of Americans for jobs that they may or may not be well suited for.

What are the other technology issues that you think should be major campaign issues in the next election?

I think artificial intelligence should be a very important issue in the election. The folks in Silicon Valley tell me it’s going to be difficult to keep up with China because of the scale of resources China is putting behind it. This is again an area where American leadership is in true jeopardy. Now we’re relying on private companies who, despite their ingenuity, don’t have the resources to keep up with what the Chinese government can do. The Chinese government is essentially writing a blank check to various AI companies. That’s a concern to technology companies here. And that’s something that I’ve told them I will help with as president.

The goal is to avoid an AI arms race, but it’s much easier to avoid an arms race when you are one of the leaders at the table than when another country is far ahead of you.

On the flip side, do you think policies need to be put into place to regulate AI?

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The answer to that is definitely yes, and many of the technologists I talked to in Silicon Valley agreed with that. And so as president, one of my proposals will be to create a new department of technology and a new secretary of technology who is not an administrator, not a politician, but is a real technologist that other technologists admire and respect. That person would be based in Silicon Valley, close to the action.

We need our senior most technologists in the room on consulting basis to make sure things, frankly, don’t run amuck and that we don’t end up doing something that threatens humanity. This is a possible existential threat so it’s a responsibility of any government to put some sort of safeguard in place.

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