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First presidential debate between Trump and Clinton basically ignored tech

Hillary Clinton laughs with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump following their presidential debate
Image: AP

The subject of technology was largely absent from Monday night’s presidential debate, minus some throwaway lines about “the cyber.” Given the night’s agenda, which focused on “America’s Direction,” “Achieving Prosperity” and “Securing America,” that’s a missed opportunity.

The future of tech is relevant to every American’s life. Jobs will be impacted or wiped out entirely by automation during the next president’s term. Our messaging apps are directly related to national security concerns, raising fundamental questions about privacy. And with many Americans struggling to pay for broadband connections at home, what role, if any, should the government play in providing infrastructure?

The future of tech is relevant to every American’s life.

These concepts aren’t exactly soundbyte-ready, but they all relate to the broad topics of “America’s Direction,” prosperity and security. You could probably make the argument that all of this affects the average American more than an extensive discussion about who did and did not support the war in Iraq but why judge?

Below are three tech topics that were largely ignored by presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and why they should come up next time around.

Job automation and artificial intelligence

Earlier this year, White House economists issued a report stating that it’s very likely that people making less than $20 an hour will lose their jobs to robots. It’s possible that new jobs will be created by the technology someone has to maintain automated kiosks and robotic factory workers, after all but it’s far from certain that there will be enough human work to go around.

It’s very likely that people making less than $20 an hour will lose their jobs to robots

Some higher paid jobs are at risk, too. Self-driving vehicles could replace human truckers within the next 10 years, potentially at the tail end of our next president’s second term, should he or she be reelected.

Uber is already testing self-driving cabs in Pittsburgh. A pizza-making robot exists to automate “repetitive” cooking tasks in Silicon Valley. Facebook trumpets customer service bots for services like 1-800-Flowers, no phone call to a human required. And developers are working on artificial intelligence that can take on HR jobs like corporate recruiting.

All of this is happening now. “Jobs,” as a topic, dominated Monday’s debate, but the discussion was broad and focused largely on the national debt as well as threats from abroad. We get it talking about deep learning technology that could enable AI to replace human jobs isn’t sexy. That doesn’t mean it isn’t relevant.

A Pepper customer service robot. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

Image: AP

“Well, the first thing you do is don’t let the jobs leave. The companies are leaving,” Trump said. “And what you do is you say, fine, you want to go to Mexico or some other country, good luck.”

Newly relevant is the question of jobs that disappear because of technology, not globalization. And that never came up.

The Snowden question

Should we prioritize privacy or security? Clinton is infamous now for using a private email server while she was secretary of state, so we might guess at where she stands, but this is a question that pertains to any citizen who communicates with a smartphone.

Edward Snowden’s leaks about the National Security Agency opened our eyes to how data is surveilled by the government. But the discussion neither begins nor ends there, as we saw when Apple battled the Federal Bureau of Investigation over iPhone encryption following a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.

Do we want a leader that supports an individual’s right to digital privacy, or do we want a leader who prioritizes security at the expense of it? The “Securing America” portion of Monday’s debate rightfully included discussions about hacking threats from abroad, but it lacked perspective on the cyber security issues most likely to impact everyday Americans: whether or not they can trust that their online communications won’t be intercepted by third parties, including law enforcement.

Google launched a new messaging app last week that doesn’t encrypt messages between users by default, meaning they’re not private and they can be viewed by the tech giant or turned over to law enforcement.

Maybe that’s fine. It’s certainly a reasonable stance for anyone to believe that police should be able to view a suspect’s messages. But it is not the de facto rule. Companies like Facebook and Apple do lock law enforcement out of their products in the name of security. Is this not worth discussing?

Infrastructure for high-speed internet

The overwhelming majority of U.S. citizens are online. But Pew research from 2015 shows that many are connected via smartphone rather than home broadband services.

Many of those people say that they’re at a “major disadvantage” for a few reasons. Forty-three percent say lacking broadband makes it harder to find out about job opportunities, while 40 percent say it makes it difficult to access government services.

There’s more, as Pew outlines here:

If candidates are concerned about Americans being able to find jobs and make money, they need to consider the digital divide. As the Obama administration states on its website, there’s a correlation between high-speed internet connections, income and education. “[Americans without high-speed internet are] falling behind from the educations theyre pursuing to the businesses theyre running,” the post reads.

The internet came up Monday night, but not really in the context you’d expect.

“We came in with the internet, we came up with the internet, and I think Secretary Clinton and myself would agree very much, when you look at what ISIS is doing with the internet, they’re beating us at our own game,” Trump said.

“I think we need to do much more with our tech companies to prevent ISIS and their operatives from being able to use the internet to radicalize, even direct people in our country and Europe and elsewhere,” Clinton responded.

Most internet services in America are provided by tech corporations. Some cities have pushed forward with municipal, public broadband like Chattanooga, Tennessee, which has reportedly seen unemployment move from 7.8 percent to 4.1 percent in the past three years. Should the government do more to support high-speed internet infrastructure?

It’s a question that could directly impact Americans’ prosperity. But, like many others, it’s certainly not one that came up on Monday.

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