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POLITICO: 5 questions for Andrew Yang

June 23, 2023
Democratic presidential candidate businessman Andrew Yang speaks during an event.
Andrew Yang speaking at a campaign event. | Mary Altaffer/AP Photo

Happy Friday, and welcome to the latest edition of our Future In Five Questions. This week I spoke with former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, now co-chair of the centrist Forward political party, which is advocating for ranked-choice voting and non-partisan primaries. Yang is also calling for a federal agency to regulate artificial intelligence, and said he remains hopeful Congress can stay ahead of the curve on AI despite failing to regulate tech for the last 25 years. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity:

What’s one underrated big idea?

People are underestimating the effect that AI will have on genomic sequencing and therapeutics. I talked to teams who are making rapid headway on treatments for everything from Alzheimer’s to different forms of cancer, to some of the signs of aging. This is an area that some of my friends expect rapid advances in — not all at once, but there will likely be a handful of significant breakthroughs in the coming months and years.

Medical researchers use AI to build sophisticated models that they can test things out on more quickly, ruling out various compounds and formulating new ones. They’re speeding up their iteration cycle very significantly, applying AI and computation to some of the compound and drug research projects that might have taken years before some of the more recent developments. Now it gets shortened to months or weeks.

What’s a technology you think is overhyped?

I just think it’s tough to get someone to wear a VR/AR headset for a particular period of time. I remember when I was seeing all the ads come out on TV and it made it seem like something a casual mom would enjoy, but it’s just a tough form factor. There are some people in my network that are curious and buy it, but don’t really use it regularly. So there’s a tough set of hurdles to overcome. People want to be comfortable in real life. People want to not look awkward in real life. It might be a context where you need to leap-frog goggles and move toward something more comfortable like contact lenses, but then you open up an entire regulatory can of worms.

What book most shaped your conception of the future?

I will call out Erik Brynjolfsson, who wrote a couple of books on automation and innovation that I found to be forward-thinking. He’s a Stanford professor and he’s the co-author of books that I thought were powerful, including “The Second Machine Age.”

I also have high regard for Martin Ford, who wrote the “Rise of the Robots,” which detailed some of the impacts of automation on workers in a way that I hadn’t seen prior.

What could the government be doing regarding tech that it isn’t?

Ranked-choice voting and nonpartisan primaries, which you can regard as a form of technology. Right now, the reason so many technology issues are falling by the wayside is that our leaders’ political incentives are unrelated to making good policy. If you were to have ranked-choice voting and nonpartisan primaries, you would unite the public interest and politics to a much higher degree. That’s the single biggest thing we could do that might improve the formulation and implementation of effective policy on technology, and other matters.

In terms of technology itself, I believe we need a dedicated agency for AI. There’s a wave of both innovation and application coming via AI and it’s going to develop extraordinarily quickly. Having a sluggish bureaucratic agency response is going to be a real problem.

I unfortunately joke that D.C. has been on a 25-year tape delay, because of the fact that we have a gerontocracy and the politics are so divorced from the policies. We saw the total absence of intelligent regulation of social media. Decades later we’re seeing the effects of that. I don’t think the feds are going to be asleep at the switch for 20 years where AI is concerned, but you want a nimble, dedicated set of regulators that are directly in touch with the technologists and firms, and companies that are deploying these tools and developing them.

What has surprised you most this year?

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the relevancy of the resilience of the economy. I talked to a lot of folks in different industries, and their concern level was high at the beginning of the year. It could be that we’ve just been fortunate that a recession hasn’t come yet, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised.