It happened again, this time in El Paso: A person filled with racial hate killed people, and instead of appealing to our better angels, as past presidents have put it, Donald Trump went in the opposite direction. The president read a scripted speech with all the right words about how hate is bad, but nobody really believed him. The president has consistently shown, from his comments on Charlottesville to border fights to mass shootings, that he’s a bigot more interested in fanning the flames to rally his base than in uniting the nation. Today the focus is on mass shootings and gun reform laws, but the consequences for inflaming hatred reach beyond emboldening white supremacist shooting sprees.
President Trump’s bigotry keeps him from being a viable leader on a number of major issues, including artificial intelligence. One example: In May 2018, the White House held an AI summit with tech companies to tell the nation and the world more about U.S. AI strategy and the emerging role of AI in business and society. Then just a few days later, President Trump undercut the work by referring to immigrants as “animals.”
Immigration and AI aren’t often talked about together, but they are not wholly separate issues: while politicians push anti-immigrant rhetoric for political gain, automation is in fact to blame for much job loss, and it’s forecast to disrupt or eliminate jobs all over the world.
It’s the invasion of AI, not immigrants, that is expected to eliminate jobs and require job retraining for millions of people. The truth about the dangers we face as a nation is important. You can’t prepare for, fight, or seek solutions to a problem if you don’t identify the threat.
Donald Trump would be a better leader on AI if he wasn’t a bigot. Being a bigot also undercuts the president’s ability to talk about the creation of ethical AI systems free of bias that work for everyone.
This is going to be essential as algorithms increasingly govern decision-making that affects human lives, especially as AI and big data develop a veneer of infallibility that leads some people not to question AI models.
The Trump administration has taken some steps to bolster U.S. AI plans, such as reaffirming and revising an Obama-era national AI R&D strategy, and charging the Department of Commerce’s NIST to explore how the federal government should engage in the creation of industry standards. But there’s more that can be done as a leader and convener of leaders.
Facial recognition, for example, is forcing governments around the world to engage in conversations about how to regulate AI and where to draw the line to protect civil liberties and privacy.
You have no memory of the president making a speech about the importance of trustworthy AI that works for everyone or raising alarm about AI’s white-guy problem, because those words would ring false.
Failure to address performance inconsistencies could have lasting consequences, akin to the fact that the lack of female crash test dummies in vehicle safety tests until recently means women are still more likely to get injured in a car accident than men.
American leadership on the ethical creation of AI is essential because much of the AI industry exists here today in major companies like Google and Amazon, as well as at top research universities like MIT and Stanford.
A breakdown of AI talent based on LinkedIn data and international AI conference attendance counted 22,000 published AI researchers around the world, with Australia, Canada, China, the U.S., and U.K. producing the most highly cited work. It also found a growth in demand for talent and that women account for only 18% of AI paper authors today.
The United States is a global hub for AI talent, with the largest share of researchers, but the world is changing fast. About one-third of researchers work for an employer in a country different from where they received their PhD. The report also notes significant growth in Africa, a continent expected to account for the majority of population growth on Earth until 2050, according to the United Nations.
AI space race
In the years ahead, as AI becomes an essential element of business and society and the world becomes a more diverse place, businesses and governments will fight over AI talent and innovators in the same way nation-states pursued the top scientific minds during the Space Race or the Manhattan Project.
But what if in the years ahead particular AI talent is needed to achieve AGI or some military goal? What if the great AI moonshot — whatever it may be — requires participation from people who think white supremacist ideology is a scourge?
In that scenario, the president’s racism does not just motivate or embolden violent white supremacists — it actually works against the national security interests of the United States.
Conversely, what if the moonshot AI needs is a multinational effort to solve a global challenge led by the United States?
Being a bigot doesn’t help in either of those scenarios.
It’s not just morally wrong to use the White House bully pulpit to call white supremacists fine people or to put kids in cages at the U.S.-Mexico border, and it’s not just reprehensible to refer to Africa as a region full of shithole nations. Long term, it may also be counter to the business and military interests of the United States.
A moonshot mindset
One of the saddest parts about the president’s bigotry is that it takes away from conversations we should be having about the future of our nation and planet, stealing from future generations by wasting energy that could go toward solving time-sensitive issues like climate change.
On Thursday, for example, the United Nations warned that humanity’s window of opportunity is closing for addressing food shortages that will be caused by climate change.
A moonshot mindset to imagine what’s possible together can’t be achieved with small thinking.
Whether or not the president genuinely believes some races are inferior or just uses it as a blunt political strategy doesn’t matter. At its core, the question itself demonstrates a failure of leadership, and it comes at a costly moment in history.
When AI is changing the future of work, military strategy, business, education, and health care, the nation and the world needs a leader that can talk to everyone.