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President Donald Trump shakes hands with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin during his White House swearing-in ceremony in February. (White House via YouTube)

Experts say the potential impact of automation and artificial intelligence could be one of the biggest economic issues of the 21st century, but Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin says it’s not on his radar screen.

Mnuchin made his comments during a “News Shapers” sitdown with Axios’ Mike Allen. His observations are pointed enough, and brief enough, that they’re worth an extended quote:

Mnuchin: “In terms of artificial intelligence taking over American jobs, I think we’re like so far away from that, not even on my radar screen.”

Allen: “How far away?”

Mnuchin: “Far enough that it’s … ”

Allen: “Seven more years?”

Mnuchin: “Seven more years? I think it’s 50 or 100 more years.”

In contrast, a report from the Obama White House on automation’s effects raised concerns about job loss and said America’s social safety net had to be strengthened, not rolled back, to compensate. One group of researchers suggested that 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at risk of being replaced by AI technologies and computerization over the next decade or two.

To be sure, the rise of AI and automation will create more opportunities as well. Last year, Obama’s chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers said his biggest concern about AI was that “we won’t have enough of it.”

But economists say it’ll take close attention to balance AI’s opportunities and threats. Mnuchin, whose resume includes roles as executive producer for such techno-dystopian movies as “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Edge of Tomorrow,” should know enough to keep AI on his radar screen.

Here’s how Mnuchin’s remarks were received by the tech Twittersphere:

Another nugget from the interview stirred up a separate fuss: When Allen asked Mnuchin to put on his Hollywood hat and recommend a good movie, here’s what the secretary said: “Well, I’m not allowed to promote anything that I’m involved in. So I just want to have the legal disclosure that you’ve asked me the question and I am not promoting any product. But you should send all your kids to ‘Lego Batman.'”

That’s yet another movie on which Mnuchin was one of the executive producers.

The comment sparked a controversy over whether Mnuchin was guilty of the same type of ethics faux pas that Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway committed when she told people to “go buy Ivanka Trump stuff.”

In response to queries about Mnuchin’s comment, a Treasury Department spokesman told reporters that he “clearly recognized that he generally may not promote private interests and specifically gave the legal disclosure that he was not promoting a movie, but answering a question he was asked directly.”

Update for 11:27 p.m. PT March 24: Moshe Vardi, director of Rice University’s Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology, has studied the impact of automation on employment for years. Here’s what he had to say in response to an email inquiry from GeekWire:

“It is utterly shocking that Treasury Secretary Mnuchin has asserted … regarding jobs concerns about artificial intelligence, that ‘it’s not even on our radar screen. … It is 50-100 more years’ away.

“Just yesterday, Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton issued their report on ‘Mortality and Morbidity in the 21st Century,‘ where they documented the dramatic increases in mortality and morbidity among white working-class Americans in midlife since the turn of the century. These increases are due to drug overdoses, suicides and alcohol-related liver mortality – strong indicators of deepening despair among white working-class Americans. A primary cause of this despair is the collapse in manufacturing employment due to automation.

“It is inconceivable that the treasury secretary, who is is the principal economic adviser to the president of the United States, would be so out of touch with economic reality.”

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