Obviously there is a lot of uncertainty in the polling numbers coming out of the election. Most articles on fivethirtyeight.com can be reduced to “we’re pretty sure what’s going on, but also absolutely anything could happen.” Regardless, if we take even the worst numbers for Trump, he’s somewhere around 40% of the popular vote. Taking the 2012 voter turnout as our benchmark (which may be optimistic), 40% of 129,000,000 is 51,600,000. This means there are at least 50 MILLION PEOPLE in our country who are so scared for their jobs, their culture and their identity that they would rather see a Trump presidency than any alternative.
And on Wednesday morning, no matter who wins, these 50 million people will still feel the same. They will still be scared that their way of life is slowly disappearing, and that any (real or imagined) former sense of security is gone. While I disagree with that notion, as well as the larger sentiment, we also must acknowledge that this is a very real contingent of the US population.
When I go to lectures, classes and meetings, I use real-time captioning to understand what’s being said. Sometimes I joke with my captioners about how my Natural Language Processing classes are teaching me how to automate their job, replacing manual captioning with automatic speech understanding. We laugh and move on, but really this is a microcosm of a larger reality: Technology is steadily and unflinchingly mowing down the forest that is many long-standing, safe and high-skill occupations. The people I work with and the people in Silicon Valley are giddy about all of this.
In William Hertling’s amazing series of novels about AI, the final book takes us to 2043, where humans and AI live in a precarious balance with AI doing most jobs, and most people free to do what they’d like, be it taking classes, painting or traveling. But the people still rise up in revolt against the machines, because they can’t stand a life without purpose. (Interestingly, the Dalai Lama expressed a very similar sentiment in the New York Times 2 days ago.)
So what’s the takeaway?
I don’t think we should slow down the pace of innovation, or compromise our progress in some way. Further, I don’t think the takeaway is some cliched parable about how no development has only an upside, without leaving people behind.
Rather, I think that this presents a unique opportunity for those working in tech, Silicon Valley, NLP, AI, etc. The 50 million people voting for Trump are a sign of a huge untapped market. They are a sign that technological benefits have only been targeting a specific segment of our society.
On November 9th, we need to decide how we’re going to interact with the 50 million people who voted for Trump, regardless of the outcome. Should we be kind and understanding? Sure, because it’s the right thing to do. But at the same time, let’s also acknowledge our own blindspots that they are forcefully drawing attention to, and work to reduce these. I don’t see how we can move forward as a society without both.