Tech Industry

Tech suffers an 'empathy gap,' California governor Gavin Newsom warns

Those who embrace disruption won't have a business if economic damage means they don't have any customers.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at Stanford's Human-Centered AI conference.
Stephen Shankland/CNET

The technology industry must realize that its marvelous advancements are also the source of profound anxiety and potentially disastrous societal changes, California Governor Gavin Newsom warned at a conference on AI at Stanford University in the heart of Silicon Valley.

"There is an empathy gap in technology," Newsom said at a conference run by the new Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence. With technology comes transition and dislocation, he said, and now with AI and automation, "There's an anxiety that is real."

The tech industry used to be an easier ally for politicians -- companies with strong brands that were important in consumers' lives. But relations have become strained with problems like Facebook enabling election interference, YouTube helping radicalize terrorists and company employees protesting military projects. No longer is it as easy to position new technology as an unalloyed boon for society.

Newsom even mentioned the buzzword that encapsulates our newfound disenchantment: "techlash."

Newsom, elected as governor in 2018, had moments of optimism. He lauded the Stanford institute's mission to advance AI technology in ways that help people, and boasted about his state. "The future happens here first. We're America's coming attraction."

But he devoted more time to tech harming large swaths of working-class people: Uber's Otto self-driving trucks putting drivers out of work, Creator (formerly Momentum Machines) making fast-food workers obsolete, and Kightscope patrol robots replacing security guards.

Uber, Creator and Knightscope didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

But complaints about disruption aren't new as technology arrives. Some people lose jobs, but typically, new technology leads to better productivity, new jobs and economic growth, the argument goes.

Newsom is also worried about the new jobs today's technology is creating -- mostly contractor positions short on benefits and security. That amplifies the rich-poor divide, he said. That trend line is dangerous for companies that need consumers who aren't desperate to save every penny.

"I'm passionate about enlightened capitalism, but businesses cannot thrive in a world that's failing ... We truly do rise and fall together," he said. "We need your guidance, we need your counsel, but we need your empathy as well."