Tech

Andrew Yang brought AI into American politics, and it isn’t going away

Andrew Yang ended his campaign Tuesday after a tepid showing in New Hampshire, bringing to an end what can be characterized as the only AI-first presidential campaign in U.S. history. Some will argue Yang’s campaign simply rose to prominence because of his support of a $1,000 universal basic income, but he outlasted and outperformed most of the field because he seems to understand the impact of automation on the economy as well as communities and the lives of individuals.

He defined himself and his campaign by his stance on AI and related issues like the future of work and how to create economic opportunity, and how AI is now essential to national defense. Using that message, he rose from a relatively unknown businessman to become one of the most popular candidates online and as high as sixth in a Real Clear Politics average of national polls.

Days before the Iowa caucus, for example, Yang called for an international ban on autonomous weapons. His campaign slogan: Humanity first. His major policy initiative: Universal basic income, which the campaign managed to do for 13 people around the country as a proof of concept and promotional campaign.

“We stood on the debate stage and shifted our national conversation to include the fourth industrial revolution, a topic no one wanted to touch until we made it happen here with this campaign,” he said in a speech announcing his departure. “We highlighted the real problems in our communities as our economy is being transformed before our eyes by technology and automation, and Americans know now that when you go to a factory in Michigan, you do not find wall-to-wall immigrants doing work. You find wall-to-wall robot arms and machines doing the work that people used to do.”

Rather than use immigration as a lightning rod of division to stoke fear and xenophobia, he talked about how most Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants, about being the son of a peanut farmer born in Taiwan, and asserted that the U.S. should not lose its reputation as a “magnet for human capital for generations.”

“If we lose that, we lose something integral to our continued success. And that is where I would lead as president,” he said in a debate last fall.

Yang also spoke out about how the U.S. government is decades behind in technology government technology, and the importance of giving parents time with their kids for early childhood education.

He seemed to understand the anxiety that comes with the spread of AI and automation and tapped into that. Yang made inroads across the country for his policy and by exhibiting the confidence and charisma voters expect from a presidential candidate, but also by being a candidate who chose to recognize and closely examine how AI and automation are changing the world.

It’s unclear whether universal basic income persists as an issue important to voters or if Yang will run again in 2024, but he’s right that the issues his campaign addressed related to AI are the “future of American politics and the Democratic Party.” Indeed, AI is playing a role in the future of business, health care, criminal justice, civil liberties, and national security.

Consultants like McKinsey now talk about AI readiness and industry as playing a role in shaping nation’s GDP growth. China plans to be the world leader in AI by 2030, and portions of the U.S. government and Department of Defense today see AI supremacy as critical to U.S. power. Last June in the first Democratic debate, a majority of Democratic presidential candidates called China the biggest external threat to the United States; Yang then said his first call as president would be to China to work together on issues like AI.

Meanwhile, AI startups saw record funding growth in 2019, but surveys of business executives find many organizations are struggling to implement the technology; a majority of executives fear that an inability to do so could bring about domination by more advanced businesses, forcing them to close their doors.

AI also continues to pose challenges to civil liberties, civil rights, and privacy laws and norms, challenges that led to the proposal of a facial recognition moratorium bill in the U.S. Senate Wednesday and Congress is considering facial recognition regulation.

The AI-first campaign for president is over. That’s history, but the issues Yang ran on are growing in importance.

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