Students and young professionals often ask me what are the most important career lessons I have learned.
The first one came during my very first job as an economist. I was very proud of my ideas but thought their presentation was much less important. I completed my written material quickly, often submitting it without worrying about small mistakes. I was very brash. My boss took me aside one day and said that although my ideas were good, I was alienating him because it wasn’t his job to proofread my work. He explained that the errors I thought were small and meaningless actually created the impression that I felt my time was more valuable than his. I was embarrassed and horrified.
I could see, however, that my boss was trying to teach me something important. I took away a very important career lesson: how you communicate is as important as what you communicate.
A few years later, I joined an investment bank as an arbitrage trader. I was very sure that my academic success at Cambridge would put me at an advantage. My naivety was challenged on my first day, when my boss looked at me and said straight up, “Your education doesn’t mean jack here.” I was dumbstruck but collected myself and asked him what did matter. He wanted me to be humble and not insist on reinventing the wheel by doing everything “my way.” I was offended at the suggestion that I should take ideas from other people, since that was cheating.
I remember him laughing at me and saying, “I’m not talking about you stealing other people’s ideas, genius. I’m asking you to learn how people succeed in getting along and become great colleagues.” I realized that what he was talking about was being part of a corporate culture – being attuned to the way people worked together and how they expected their colleagues to act. I quickly got over myself and realized I had learned a second important lesson: you need to be aware of how well you connect with those around you if you wanted to succeed in business.
The third lesson that really accelerated my career was about when to stand out. Not long after starting as an associate in an international law firm, the economy soured and there was very little work. Most of my colleagues spent their time avoiding the partners. Looking around, I realized that the partners were frightened too.
Up to that time I had believed that it was the role of senior people to figure out what to do in times of crisis. Yet one day at a firmwide meeting, I realized that no one else had any better ideas than I did, and that if I did nothing I was likely going to lose my job because no one was going to find work for me to do. I spoke up and said, “I know we are all frightened, but we can either let our fear disable us, or we can get out there and find work.”
For the next two years, the partners never stopped chiding me for being the first-year associate with the temerity to speak up, and I wasn’t too popular with my peers, but I never backed down from what I had said. Long after most of my colleagues who hadn’t taken responsibility had been laid off, I was still employed. This was when I learned my third important career lesson: leaders are people who are willing to stand up and take responsibility when others are not.
These three lessons helped shaped my career. But in some ways, focusing on specific lessons misses the point. What matters most of all: the ability to stand apart from the moment and take in the lesson to be learned. Being self-aware is the most important career lesson of all.
To fulfill its economic potential, Greater Washington must change how it approaches workforce education.
Tens of thousands of high-paying jobs in the region are currently unfilled because we do not have enough workers with the necessary technical skills. Meanwhile, employers complain that many of the workers they do hire have technical skills but lack soft skills, such as communication and critical thinking.
A large part of the answer may be that we think of jobs in two categories — white and blue collar — and make a similar distinction in how these workers are educated. Typically, a bachelor’s degree is a prerequisite for a white-collar job and often the specific undergraduate course of study doesn’t matter; what matters is the implicit assumption that the graduate has learned how to assimilate information from a variety of sources, think critically and spit it back it out in the required format. BA graduates are assumed to have developed soft skills, like written and spoken communication and an awareness of social norms. Conversely blue-collar jobs are seen as not requiring a BA because these jobs involve operating machinery or manual labor and are not seen as requiring soft skills.
The problem with this bifurcation is that it no longer reflects our region’s needs. The lines between jobs are no longer clear-cut. As Virginia’s Gov. Ralph Northam has said many times in the last year, it no longer makes sense to talk about white-collar and blue-collar jobs. Instead, we should talk about “new collar” jobs that require that a worker have mastery of both soft and technical skills.
How can we provide students with a cost effective way to obtain new collar skills?
One example can be found in a recent pilot program launched by George Mason University and Northern Virginia Community College. These institutions already closely work together as Mason will automatically accept transfer students from NVCC once they successfully complete a degree at NVCC and satisfy grade requirements. This has provided a way for thousands of students to save money by filling their “general education” and introductory courses at NVCC and then transferring to Mason for upper level courses that earn them a bachelor’s degree.
Because of their successful relationship and seeing the need for preparing our workforce for a new collar future, last year Mason and NVCC launched a pilot program called “ADVANCE” to more tightly integrate the educational process for a group of students. Through ADVANCE, students will enroll in both institutions on day one, have the same guidance counselor all the way along and can plan their entire four-year education with the class offerings of both institutions available. This approach is expected to provide students with a more satisfying educational experience, and the opportunity to obtain technical and soft skills in one place. It will also save students an average of $15,000 by eliminating some of the inefficiencies that occur when students transfer credits between educational institutions.
Mason President Angel Cabrera pointed out to me that making education affordable and accessible was highly important to Mason and was a big reason it started ADVANCE with NVCC, saying “we know that a college degree is essential in today’s economy.” Scott Ralls, President of NVCC added, “Our goal is to help more students graduate in high-demand fields.”
They would like their respective institutions to take the best parts of technical training and a university curriculum and combine them together into new curricula and degrees that demonstrate the development of white collar skills. Ralls gave me a few examples, such as a student who could graduate with a computer science degree and certification of technical competence in cybersecurity or a history major who could learn how to do basic coding and work with technology as a native.
For Ralls, there are few things more important for our region than finding new ways to train our workforce. He reminded me that our region has one of the nation’s slowest-growing workforces because as he puts it, “potential workers from other regions, particularly technology workers, do not naturally gravitate to our region.”
Mason and NVCC hope to double the number of students in ADVANCE in the coming year and scale it from there to help build a pipeline of highly skilled white-collar workers. This summer, they are specifically looking for further guidance from our business community to help shape curricula and degree requirements.
I am planning on spending some of my time this summer working with them on this project. I’d like to see other businesspeople similarly engaged. Filling our region’s unfilled jobs with locally developed talent is something we can all get behind.
Jonathan was quoted in this article on the state of venture capital in the Greater Washington region written by Andy Medici of the Washington Business Journal:
The D.C. region’s declining share is more worrying for Jonathan Aberman, managing director for Amplifier Ventures. He thinks it’s a mismatch between what venture capitalists want — high-growth consumer software and product companies — and what the region produces — and more service-oriented companies.
“The reason why this matters is that we make things that people don’t want to buy — and that is our problem,” said Aberman, who writes a weekly column for the Washington Business Journal. “We excel at being consultants.”
In the last decade or so, a software emphasis shifted to Silicon Valley, while the D.C region created deeper inroads in government contracting and media markets, leaving it in a poor position to attract venture dollars. Aberman’s solution? Place a stronger emphasis on products over services to generate the kind of interest and attention that leads to more mergers, acquisitions and funding.
“Venture capital as a model depends on growing companies that are likely to be acquired by other businesses in the short term,” Aberman said. “When you are growing companies that are hyper-relevant to the larger companies, you get more M&A and you get more deal velocity and you get more VCs to invest.”
Make no mistake: President Donald Trump’s unilateral decision to impose tariffs on imports from China and our closest allies, including the EU and Canada, is a very big deal. We should all be concerned.
This action is another example of the politics of aggrievement: anger and outrage looking for someone to blame and make pay for the transgressions, real or imagined, suffered by the aggrieved. You can see the politics of aggrievement play out through anti-immigration policies, steps to shrink government and actions to cut taxes and eliminate regulations without a serious inquiry into whether there really is a transgression and, if there is, whether the action is in fact a remedy.
As practiced in this country, aggrievement politics depends on obscuring the data and facts that undermine its arguments and outrage. For example, in the immigration debate, we don’t hear much about the country’s need for young workers, who will pay into the Social Security and Medicare trust funds, and how immigration is a prime source of these young workers. We don’t hear much about how the recent tax cuts favored passive investment and aren’t creating the promised jobs or increased wages. Facts and data that don’t support aggrievement are shouted down or ignored because they’re “too complicated” to be understood. The politics of aggrievement has succeeded because informed debate doesn’t occur and because the consequences of its policies haven’t been widely felt yet.
Tariffs are a different matter entirely. They are the place where aggrievement as a ruling philosophy will run smack into the fundamental reality that international trade benefits the U.S. and the rest of the world. And while we may decide to turn our back on the world trade, others will not. While those profiting from the politics of aggrievement have successfully controlled the domestic discussion, they won’t be able to control the global discussion.
The international community knows that tariffs imposed without due consideration of their effect on other countries or the domestic workforce are a losing strategy. They see the historical experience of the tit-for-tat tariff wars that led to the Great Depression as one stark frightening example, among many others, of what happens when countries try to capture prosperity by beggaring their neighbors.
The international community knows that the countries that have cooperated economically have collectively created more wealth and eliminated poverty on a level never before seen in human history. There is little danger that China, Canada, the EU and the rest will unilaterally increase tariffs on one another, just because we place tariffs on them. They will avoid a replay of the 1930s world economy.
What they will do, however, is put targeted tariffs on U.S. products and find ways to inhibit our exports to them. Meanwhile, the president’s tariffs on foreign imports are already adversely affecting our companies. Many businesses they are supposed to help, like General Motors, have already said on record that they are opposed to them. Others are reconfiguring their businesses by laying off American workers or shifting production overseas, for example, Harley Davidson and Mid-Continental Nail. The Federal Reserve Board has raised concern that these businesses are the thin edge of a broader trend.
Perhaps the president’s view is that because the U.S. market is so big, our trading partners will eventually give in and the U.S. will win. That is a grave miscalculation, because we have as much to lose, if not more. U.S. businesses — many of which are located in our region — will lose access to international markets and pay higher costs for inputs, while our government will lose access to international capital.
Shaking a fist at China or Canada may provide a nice dopamine hit for some, but at some point, the world will just go on without us and other nations will derive the primary benefit from international trade while we see our economy shrink and our country become less relevant.
Ignoring that reality may be momentarily effective politics, but I’m not hearing anything that gives comfort that there is a plan once the aggrieved are done being angry.
Is creativity a talent that only a select few have? Or is creativity a skill that can be learned by most people?
Because creativity drives problem solving and thus economic growth, those who want to grow our region’s economy hope that creativity is a teachable skill. “The Creative Curve,” a new book by Allen Gannett, founder of local tech startup Track Maven, provides valuable insight on this issue.
Creativity is essential to scientific discovery, artistic expression and entrepreneurship. Because of creativity’s value to his own life as an entrepreneur, Gannett wanted to better understand whether it could be captured in a predictable, repeatable process. But he also wanted to help others to be creative, because of creativity’s importance to our community.
As he researched his book, Gannett learned that the popular belief that creativity occurs in a flash does not describe how the brain actually works when addressing problems and creating solutions. He also learned that various intelligence tests and related experiments demonstrate that creativity does not arise from innate intelligence, but rather from personal experience and acquired expertise. Creativity is not limited to those with genius level IQs. Gannett uses several examples to assess the world population’s creative potential. One example relies on standardized tests to show that as many as 3 billion of the people alive today have the intellectual ability to be creative.
He concludes that creativity is accessible much more widely than popularly believed. This conclusion is very important to Gannett, who told me that “if my book can change only one thing about the conversation around creativity, it would be this: We need to stop talking about creativity like it is magic.”
For Gannett, demystifying creativity and showing people that they are all capable of it helps them see they have the skills to make their creativity matter. To achieve impact, Gannett believes that the creative person must put forth ideas and concepts that balance two somewhat contradictory human impulses. He shows us that when faced with something new, humans fall back on two different patterns of behavior: We are excited by novelty but at the same time we value the predictability of the commonplace.
Gannett’s research showed him that the most influential ideas are those that manage to concurrently satisfy desires for novelty and the commonplace. Achieving this is extremely powerful and when it occurs, for example with the iPhone that created something new out of the familiarity of the iPod, an idea or product can become very important very quickly.
It is in the balancing of novelty and the commonplace that Gannett finds skills that can be taught. He highlights that creative people who get their ideas adopted share a number of traits. Successfully creative people learn from experience; that experience includes their own and what they learn from others. They are intentional about how they gain their experience – purposeful and selective. They are exceedingly curious. They are active learners.
All this means that creativity is characterized by a reproducible set of behaviors. Creativity is not a bolt from the blue. Surprisingly, it’s much more about grinding it out and having the opportunity to experiment and to learn.
I am so very tired of how often these days pundits and politicians tell us that only they can fix real or imagined problems. They rely on our belief that coming up with the ideas that shape our society and fix problems is somehow the preserve of a special few. Reading Gannett’s book, I am reminded that the ability to come up with solutions and influence others to make changes, large and small, is something we all can do. Demagoguery and punditry are only good strategies when we acquiescence by agreeing that we are helpless and unable to think for ourselves.
I pointed out to Gannett that his conclusion — that creativity and successful problem-solving are widely distributed talents that can be even further developed — is essentially a political one. He told me although he hadn’t thought about it in this way, I was right.
Gannett summed up his thinking in one sentence: “I think that we as citizens have an obligation to ensure that our society lives up to its creative ideals.”
It’s a popular misconception that entrepreneurs cannot be effective leaders of larger organizations. That leads many organizations to turn away from the very type of leadership their organizations need.
I live an entrepreneurial life, and it never fails to amaze me how many people misunderstand entrepreneurs. The media are largely responsible. They overplay the theme of individual success and ignore collective effort when they talk about entrepreneurship.
This imbalanced coverage creates the impression that successful entrepreneurs are not good at leading teams or being good team players; it paints them as highly individualistic and as outsiders, someone interested only in running the show until the venture capitalists take over or the business is sold.
This viewpoint prevents many entrepreneurs from finding interesting and exciting challenges in larger organizations and deprives these organizations of the type of leadership needed to grow. Last week I ran across some research work done by Timothy Butler, senior fellow and director of career development programs at Harvard, and it really crystalized my thinking.
Butler’s first observation is that entrepreneurs are not actually risk takers; rather, they are risk mitigators. They do not take risks blind to the outcome, but instead look with a clear head for ways to manage risk. They are able to do this because they are highly comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty, which is a fundamental entrepreneurial trait. This makes them very suitable for leading teams developing strategies and calmly managing them through the stresses of change.
He also notes that most entrepreneurs are not wild-eyed creative people who daydream and come up with big ideas. His research found that while this is sometimes true, most entrepreneurs’ creativity is oriented toward the practical. This means that their insights can be communicated and made actionable by others, because they can be explained and broken up into steps.
Lastly, Butler’s research shows that entrepreneurial people are effective sales people. In this area, the stereotypes and reality overlap. That doesn’t surprise me at all. Entrepreneurial people are generally most happy when they are engaged in solving a hard problem, and happy people tend to attract others to their activities. This makes entrepreneurial people naturally adept in selling their vision and ideas to others. Their enthusiasm and clarity of purpose make them highly effective leaders in a larger organization.
It strikes me that many of the organizations that I see facing big challenges could use CEOs with the skills Butler identified: risk management, practical creativity and contagious joy.
So how do we help these organizations see our region’s entrepreneurs as a reservoir of these talents?
The first step is to look less at the context in which they exercised their entrepreneurial character and instead focus on their behavior and emotional intelligence. Because entrepreneurial people are problem solvers by nature, you can learn a great deal about them by how they meet challenges. Many entrepreneurial people work very well with teams and are inspirational leaders. If they have built teams to grow their own businesses, they can certainly lead a larger organization’s people as effectively.
The second step requires some self-awareness on the organization’s part. As Butler points out, an organization must be honest about its need for change and capacity to execute. An entrepreneurial leader will want to move fast and get things done. Meanwhile, the organization must also be clear about whether the challenges it faces are going to be hard for the entrepreneurial leader to meet. Entrepreneurial people want to do hard things and make a difference — this is something Butler’s research shows, and also something I have seen time and again.
I know many entrepreneurs who could be great leaders for larger organizations. Yet very few have ever been asked.
I have long believed that our region has a specific model of technology entrepreneurship that is different from models elsewhere. Last week, another member of our community provided his perspective on what that model is, and why our region is an innovation hotbed with boundless entrepreneurial potential.
Evan Burfield is best known in our region as a founder of 1776 and Union. I spoke with him last week about his new book, “Regulatory Hacking, a Playbook for Startups,” and asked him why he wrote it.
Burfield explained that while managing 1776 and Union, he has often been confronted with startups here and elsewhere that were applying what Burfield described as the “Silicon Valley playbook.” He was referring to a company creation viewpoint that encourages companies to ignore prevailing political and government restraints and to avoid working with the government as a customer or partner.
He just didn’t understand how this approach made any sense for growing technology businesses. Silicon Valley mythology dictates that issues of regulation and government should be ignored when startup entrepreneurs create their business ideas. The realities of technology business growth are far more constrained by government regulation and politics than many like to admit. Regulating technology is the natural result of its growing complexity and of the risks facing citizens as a result of that increase in complexity. Arguing that regulation shouldn’t apply to technology is mistaken, he concluded, because “regulation is how government addresses risks.”
Perhaps there is a distinction to be made between regulating markets – say antitrust or internet access – and regulating the application of technology that could cause physical or social harm. Market regulation might be seen as more partisan or more likely to vary in application as political power shifts. However, from Burfield’s perspective, regulation of technology was likely to exist and affect startup growth whoever was in power, because as technology continues to become more complex, its ability to cause harm also increases.
His conclusion, therefore, is that at a minimum, budding entrepreneurs must be ready to understand and work within the regulatory environment. But Burfield believes that they should also be creative and identify opportunities where regulations are likely to change, or where the entrepreneur can lead a change, so as to position their businesses to accelerate their growth. He calls the process of looking at regulation in this way “regulatory hacking.”
Burfield is quick to add that regulatory hacking is not ignoring or dismissing rules and regulatory expectations. This is a key point: Regulatory hacking is not finding ways to push externalities onto others by ignoring regulation. It is finding ways to constructively work within regulations to do something that serves a social purpose.
As Burfield looks that the realities of technology and regulation, he sees a distinct opportunity for our region’s innovators to lead the nation in creating businesses that will balance regulation, political considerations and economic opportunity. Technologies such as artificial intelligence, sensors, blockchain and others will change our economy for the better only if political concerns and regulation are properly addressed. “The exciting new technologies that are starting to come to market are going to be much more consequential and risker,” is Burfield’s prediction.
Regulatory hacking very much describes a phenomenon that was revealed in my prior work with The 2030 Group and the Greater Washington Partnership. Our region grows our largest and most successful businesses when the business takes advantage of the interplay between regulation and entrepreneurship. MCI, AOL, Capital One and many others have grown by taking advantage of proximity to our nation’s capital and growing within regulatory constraints and pushing the boundaries in constructive ways. Burfield’s work therefore reinforces what makes our region unique as a business community and makes it relevant for technology startup entrepreneurs.
Although our region has this unique opportunity, we should not be complacent. Burfield points out that many entrepreneurs and governments around the world are actively embracing regulatory hacking. They are thinking ahead, anticipating how to grow technology businesses that will properly balance risks with economic opportunities. Burfield is dismayed that the current national political environment is not looking forward but instead is transfixed by “economic arguments that feel ripped from the 1950s or even the 1920s.”
My conversation with Burfield about his new book reminded me why our region is such an engrossing business community to work in. The interplay of politics, regulations and technology that will shape the economic destiny of billions of people occurs in our midst every day.
Last week I was in Italy, where I was repeatedly reminded that a society’s direction is shaped by the choices made by its wealthiest citizens. This holds true whether the society is organized as a republic or an empire.
The Renaissance is often said to have started in Florence in the late 14th century. For one hundred years, Florence was the center of unprecedented upheaval in artistic techniques, architecture, philosophy, and political thought. Perspective was introduced into painting. The largest dome built since antiquity rose above the terracotta roofs of residents. Sculpture became truly representative of the human form. All this was possible because the merchants and bankers of Florence accumulated enormous wealth over a relatively short period of time. They chose to spend their money on artists and architects to advertise Florence’s power to its enemies and deter attack, to encourage the population’s loyalty to its city, and in many cases, to fulfill their religious duties. They spent their money in ways that benefited the city, as well as themselves.
The Roman Republic and the first few hundred years of empire also allowed for the creation of great wealth, largely because of wars of conquest. During the Republican period, great public spaces were created for trade, for courts, and for worship. These were paid for by the government and by private individuals. The early Empire saw public spending on baths, aqueducts, granaries, roads, entertainments, and shrines. These expenses were undertaken both by the emperors and by local wealthy persons, who sought their fellow citizens’ respect (and sometimes their votes) and a good afterlife.
But there is no immutable law that the wealthy will spend their money on civic activities. In the 16th century as Florence’s political system changed from a republic to a hereditary monarchy, wealth concentrated into the hands of the ruling family was funneled more and more into public displays of consumption to remind subjects of their hereditary right to power. Chapels, artwork and buildings were funded to convey the dominance of the Medici family, and its hereditary right to rule. The same Medici family that a hundred years earlier when Florence was a republic were the leading funders of publicly focused projects.
Looking at our community today I wonder how different we truly are. Wealth funds university endowments to pursue intellectual discovery, provides risk capital to develop new businesses and charitable organizations that address social challenges. The wealthy build things that are important to them and focus their money on the things that they care about. Some put their money into causes that they believe in. Others spend on consumption. Some don’t want to pay taxes to support public benefits, while others are happy to do so because they believe it is their responsibility.
We are at a very interesting point in our society’s future. Undoubtedly you are hard pressed to find a consensus opinion of how the wealthy should spend their money. That does not mean, of course, that people don’t have an opinion.
For my part I think that if we are to live up to the American ideal of the freedom of choice, we must acknowledge that this means that those with wealth should be free to spend it as they wish. There is no immutable law that says how the wealthy must act – nor should there be. But, it is fair to remind all who have the wealth to shape our society’s future, that their power to choose on what to spend also carries a somber responsibility.
Much of what affects us today – many of the things we associate with modernity – were built from the projects and the public works that the wealth of Florence and Italy funded. The choices that their wealthy made affected the development of their societies and ours as well in lasting and significant ways.
Last week was a reminder to me that for those of us in our region with the wherewithal to apply wealth to address a social challenge are providing the clearest clues of what our society will value, and how it will grow.
As it is the case for all of us today, and for those that are to follow in years to come, we must all acknowledge that societies are shaped by how the wealthy spend their money. While there may not be a consensus on what they should spend their money on, I hope that our wealthy understand that it not just today’s world they are shaping: They are also influencing subsequent generations. They have the power to choose, and the responsibility to choose wisely.
I wonder what those who follow will think of their decisions. And, I hope that our wealthiest citizens will care what they think.
Terry Clower, director of the CRA, explained why his colleagues had prepared this report. Because immigration has become such an emotionally charged issue, they wanted people concerned about the region’s economic future to have objective data to fully appreciate the role that foreign born, noncitizens play in its economy. As Clower put it, by gathering this data, we can all “frame important questions about the potential economic consequences” of national immigration policies and attitudes on our region’s growth potential.
The report shows us that our region has a lot at stake in the immigration debate.
Noncitizens are a significant portion of our region’s work force: close to 500,000 people and 15 percent of total workers. Many of these people have been our neighbors for a long time. Four out of five of them arrived in the U.S. prior to 2010. These are people who undoubtedly now have roots here with children in schools, and almost certainly pay taxes. They are also disproportionately important to several key local industries. Approximately half of the workers filling construction, cleaning, and maintenance occupations in our region are foreign-born non-citizens.
I asked Clower what surprised him the most about the data. He highlighted two findings. The first was how reliant our region’s construction industry is on the noncitizen labor force. Since construction is a particularly important industry in our region this was an important finding. His second was the breadth of work activities in our region that rely on noncitizen workers. This is a group that is far more knitted into our economy than many imagine.
Mark While, a co-author of the report, highlighted two additional data points that he thought were important. This first was that a quarter of our region’s noncitizen workforce is from El Salvador. This means that Trump administration’s plan to change the status of noncitizen Salvadorans is likely to have a direct effect on our economic growth trajectory.
He also noted that noncitizens comprise 10 percent of our region’s computer and math skilled workers. Not only are they a significant percentage of our high-tech work force, but also they, as a group, achieved comparatively higher levels of educational achievement than did citizens. At a time when the region already has a shortfall of technical talent, the non-citizen workers are even more indispensable. According to White, “There isn’t much slack in the workforce, so the region can’t afford to lose that 10 percent, let alone 5 percent or 2 percent.“
Knowing how important these industries are to the region’s economy, I asked Clower what would happen if noncitizens left the local work force, either because changes in enforcement of immigration laws forced them out, or never joined it, because a perception that immigrants were not welcome meant they never came here at all. He pointed to the historically low U.S. unemployment rate and the tightness of our job market, suggesting that if jobs currently being performed by noncitizens were not being filled, there would be some wage increases to encourage new employment, but that there just weren’t enough available workers to fill the openings that would be created. This meant that “while some would see higher wages, the total number of jobs would likely drop and the net economic effect could be very negative.” Our region’s economy would shrink while costs of doing business would increase.
Overall, the CRA report demonstrates to me how important it is to have an objective basis for making political and economic decisions. How we treat our noncitizens will have an economic effect on us all. This is not a partisan statement, but a statement of fact.
In discussions about immigration, like those about taxes, tariffs or energy, emotional arguments based on what we are sure is true may make some of us feel good in the moment. But these are all issues that benefit from a close study of shared facts because what we are sure is true often isn’t. We need to put aside emotion and deal in facts when figuring out what’s right for the region.
I want to live in a region that is growing and providing opportunities for all that live here. Adopting policies that cause key workers to leave or dissuade them from coming at all may be great politics. But it’s terrible economics and bad business.
Experts agree that artificial intelligence’s capabilities are multiplying at an exponentially increasing rate. AI software can exercise intelligence that matches or exceeds our own at more and more tasks. Once software can make its own decisions, what is left for the human to do?
The autonomous cars on our roads, the automatic pilots flying our planes and the customer service software that measures our purchasing intent are all real-world examples of how rapidly AI’s capabilities are expanding and touching more aspects of our lives.
The key is that AI can make more and more decisions without human input and act autonomously. But aren’t we still the only beings with intelligence? Shouldn’t that be the criteria for who gets to make decision? Paul Scharre, a local expert on the military’s use of AI and author of the new book “Army of None,” pointed out to me that “intelligence is the ability to take in information and accomplish a task. This is not something that is unique to humans, nor is it inevitable that we will always be the best at applying intelligence to a particular task.” Humanity must have a plan for dealing with this new reality.
This question of applying autonomous AI to the military is getting much of the public attention of the tech industry and academic community. For instance, tech leaders such as Elon Musk have called for an outright ban on autonomous AI in warfare.
I believe this is happening for two reasons. First, the focus on autonomous AI’s use in war arises from peoples’ distaste for having software decide who lives and who dies. Second, individuals who will benefit financially from AI’s deployment in the civilian sector affirmatively use the military issue to deflect the conversation away from their own activities and plans.
The talk about banning military autonomous AI really is putting all our energy in the one problem that societal rules and norms already address. Scharre suggested to me that we should evaluate the likely use of AI in the military the same way we view nuclear weapons and other advanced military technologies. If we do, we realize that what prevents their use is the likelihood of similar response from an adversary. I agree with him. Is it sad that we develop technologies that can make our ability to kill one another ever more efficient? Absolutely. But we have at least figured out how to deal with the technologies’ implications.
Outside of the messy but addressable military issue there is a bigger and fundamental issue arising out of AI that many are dancing around. AI, particularly autonomous AI, will be more efficient than humans for many, many tasks. AI software won’t get tired, have a bad day or get distracted. In many cases, it will make decisions much faster than a human could.
Because our economy rewards efficiency, applying AI in business will be financially rewarding. This takes us to the issue fewer seem willing to discuss. We must discuss whether and to what extent we can tolerate the efficiency gains autonomous AI creates in a capitalist society if it makes human labor irrelevant or comparatively more expensive.
We do not have social norms or anything close to a political consensus on how to handle the inevitable job displacement of a population that in many instances is not only computer illiterate, but which also doesn’t have adequate reading and math skills. Moreover, there will be many highly educated people who will also find their jobs disappear. We need to address their situation in a long-term, comprehensive way. The world is about to get more competitive because humans will no longer be competing just with other humans for employment.
Although killer robots trigger a visceral emotional response, as should any weapon of mass destruction that can kill humans efficiently, we urgently need a societal commitment to become a country of people who understand AI and thus can work with it. We must develop a technically skilled population with critical thinking skills and the creativity necessary to excel at the unique, non-repetitive tasks that humans will remain better able to do for the foreseeable future. Failure to do that will marginalize more and more people, and eventually challenge the legitimacy of a democratic and capitalistic society.
We can co-exist with AI, but we must get ready by making immediate, substantial and forward-thinking investments in education at all levels. Killer robots are scary, but not having a plan for what AI is going to do to our economy is much more frightening.