At SXSW in Austin earlier this week, Shark Tank investor and billionaire Mark Cuban doled out some unsolicited economic advice in a jab at President Trump.
"Factory jobs aren't coming back," Cuban said. "People need to live in reality."
For the crowd that attends the annual tech-centric festival, that reality involves robots--and the potential for automation to render millions of American jobs unnecessary.
One company at the center of this conversation is OTTO Motors, a division of Clearpath Robotics. Ontario-based OTTO--not to be confused with the startup of the same name Uber acquired in 2016 and then rebranded--builds self-driving vehicles specifically to transport materials inside industrial warehouses. GE and John Deere are among its customers.
At an SXSW session on Tuesday, OTTO CEO and co-founder Matt Rendall acknowledged that automation will wreak havoc on existing jobs but he put a more optimistic spin on the future. "I don't debate that there's going to be a robot revolution," he said. "My question is, will it be an American one?"
Rendall has a theory as to how the U.S. can keep jobs in human hands. "We need to make the machines that make the machines," he said.
The CEO pointed out that none of the four biggest robotics manufacturers are American companies--two are based in Japan, one in Germany, and one in Sweden. The U.S., he said, risks falling behind other countries economically if it doesn't make a change. "The move to automation is going to happen with or without us. We need to invest in making it happen here in America."
It's debatable whether there is any way to truly counter job loss due to automation. In the U.S., the number of jobs started growing at a slower rate than the nation's productivity around 2000, a trend economists refer to as decoupling. That trend shows no sign of changing as automation becomes more widespread--and many predict the number of jobs will shrink by a large number. Eliminating driving jobs alone would wipe out about two million roles. Others, like real estate agents, X-ray technicians, and retail salespeople, are very much at risk of becoming redundant. Factory workers for years have felt the effects of automation.
That's where Rendall suggests the opportunity lies to add jobs instead of watching robots snatch them away. "The general public has been a lot more passionate lately about staying local, bringing jobs back to the U.S.," he said. "If we want jobs in the U.S., they need to involve automation."
Government investments in research and technology can help fuel innovation--and hugely successful companies can arise as a result of that innovation. As Bill Gates wrote last year, the U.S. government invested heavily in microchips and the internet--which helps explain why many of the world's biggest computer hardware and software companies are based in America. Gates is slated to meet with Trump on March 20. Trump previously met with Gates and separately with other tech leaders in December.
Cuban, for one, is pessimistic about the possibility of a coherent U.S. policy under Trump related to advancing artificial intelligence and tech in general. "He's never sent an email in his life. He doesn't know how to use Google," Cuban said. "I thought this would be the term that we had a tech-literate president. I guess it'll be next term."
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Matt Rendall as CEO and co-founder of San-Francisco-based Otto, the self-driving truck startup Uber acquired in 2016. Rendall is CEO and co-founder of OTTO Motors, a division of Clearpath Robotics in Ontario, Canada.