Skip to content Skip to navigation

California Governor Gavin Newsom Looks to Stanford’s New AI Institute to Close Tech’s “Empathy Gap"

California Governor Gavin Newsom Looks to Stanford’s New AI Institute to Close Tech’s “Empathy Gap"

March 20, 2019
California Governor Gavin Newsom spoke about the widening opportunity gap at the symposium for Stanford's new Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence

Technology, for all its achievements, is provoking anxiety in many people, and it is incumbent upon the industry and the scientists who fuel its success to acknowledge it, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday at the official debut of Stanford’s Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence.

“There is an empathy gap, dare I say, in technology, and what you’re trying to do here is bring that component into the conversation,” Newsom said. 

Known as HAI, the institute will be a center for research into artificial intelligence, and perhaps most importantly, will emphasize the connection between AI and the billions of people who will be affected as the technology becomes ubiquitous and ever more powerful, said Fei-Fei Li, a Stanford professor of computer science and the Institute’s co-director.

Newsom’s 20-minute talk, delivered without notes, acknowledged the gap between the understanding of politicians like himself and the rapid pace of technological change. “I don't know why the hell you asked the governor of California to talk about AI when we can't even figure out how to access credit cards at the DMV. We are on the cutting edge of technology -- of 1973,” he said.

Although the pace is uncertain, it’s likely that AI and related technologies will eventually make some jobs obsolete. That is a major concern for workers who worry they may lose their jobs, and for policymakers who must find a way to prepare for widening inequality and dislocation. “There's anxiety, there's a lot of fear out there and it's real,” Newsom said.

Newsom recalled speaking to an executive of a company that plans to replace security guards with robots. “No pensions, no workers comp, no complaining,” the executive said. The founder of another company told the governor that he expects machines to replace fast-food workers, saying:  “Our job is not to make employees more efficient. It’s to obviate the need for them.” And while online retailing is fascinating for investors and entrepreneurs, “There are 3.4 million cashiers that don’t think it’s so fascinating. What the hell do we do with them?” Newsom asked.

“Something big is happening in the world.  And we are not prepared as a society to deal with it. It's certainly not the conversation we're having in Washington DC,” he said.

Preparing for the changes to come can’t wait for decades, Newsom said while acknowledging that efforts in education and policy have so far been inadequate. “We added $10 million of our $204 billion budget to increase skills training at the community colleges, but in the context of this conversation, that isn’t nearly enough,” he said.

Singapore, said Newsom, has created a program that awards tax credits and tuition rebates to citizens who want to upgrade their job skills. “California needs to do more than pay lip service to life-long learning. We need to get serious about transforming education to meet these needs,” he said. But it’s all too easy to propose facile solutions that won’t work in the real world.  “Learning to code at 55 or 60 years old?  I don’t know,” Newsom said.

Newsom closed his talk on a note of appreciation for the work of Stanford’s new institute: “These problems are real and they are happening in real time.  And we're not prepared for it as a state and certainly not prepared for it, as a nation. So this is a long way of expressing my gratitude and deep appreciation for what you are debating and discussing today.”