Over President Obama two terms in the White House, Jason Furman was a leading advisor on economic policy and a key voice on the growing importance of artificial intelligence.
Furman was deputy director of the National Economic Council before becoming chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. He also co-authored a report released by the Obama administration in October 2016 that found detailed the economic importance of AI in the USA.
Furman, who is now a professor of economic policy practice at Harvard, spoke with WIRED senior writer Will Knight. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
WIRED: The report produced under President Obama, Prepare for the future of artificial intelligence, stressed the importance of AI to the US economy. What’s the first thing the Biden administration should do to demonstrate this?
Jason Furman: By far the most important policy change in AI is expected to be immigration policy. It has been a disaster for the past four years, and I hope it will improve a lot over the next four years.
AI is invented by humans, and if you look at the best AI engineers, they are spread all over the world. Attracting them to this country is very important.
The United States certainly has lost its appeal for some students and tech workers. Are there specific immigration policies that you would like to see changed?
It all ranges from discouraging students from coming to our country to making it less attractive to hire people through the H-1B program and make it more difficult for spouses of people at work while they’re here.
If you look at AI engineers and big tech companies, they’re from all over the world. It’s also just sending a “You are not welcome in America” message. I think this has been the worst thing for innovation in AI over the past four years. Some of the evil builds up over time, so it’s not at all too late to face this and undo it.
There has been a lot of impressive research on AI over the past few years. Why can’t the United States just focus on using this?
I think it’s possible that we need more and more impressive AI just to keep up the old pace of innovation.
Look at agriculture. The most important crops are wheat and soybeans, and there is very little room left for AI – it is already very mechanized. There is more room for AI in advanced robotics with red fruits like strawberries and grapes and work there. In some ways, this requires a much more technologically advanced contribution. But the output in terms of GDP is just not as big as what we have already done in agriculture, because it is a smaller part.
What about the Trump administration’s concerns about Chinese students or researchers coming to the United States to steal ideas?
I think the paranoia around spying on Chinese students and Chinese researchers in the United States is preventing us from attracting the best scientists and making progress in many areas, of which AI is just one example. .
Much of what is done in universities is no secret; in fact, we want to people to hear these ideas. and take them to other countries. The larger the network of people involved in this process, the faster we will progress. So the idea that China is spying on something that in itself is a public good – it just doesn’t make sense.
There must be some legitimate concerns though, perhaps with companies like Huawei?
I don’t have access to enough information about Huawei; I don’t have security clearance. I am open to the idea that this is a legitimate matter of national security to protect us from espionage. But it’s different from ideas; who uses a particular company’s technology integrated with who knows what.