Denis McDonough addressed a sold-out crowd at the University of St. Thomas on Oct. 5, 2018.

Five Observations: First Friday with Denis McDonough

Denis McDonough, senior principal at Markle Foundation and former White House chief of staff in the Obama administration, kicked off the 28th annual St. Thomas Alumni Association First Friday Speaker Series on Oct. 5.

Here are five observations from McDonough’s talk, “Training and Skills in the Age of Artificial Intelligence,” in front of a sold-out crowd at James B. Woulfe Alumni Hall on the St. Paul campus.

1. Concerns about artificial intelligence (AI) are well-founded.

McDonough noted that 90 percent of the data in the current ecosystem was created in the last two years.

“When we left the White House, we transferred to the archives of the United States 565 million electronic records generated over eight years. None of those records is included in (that previous statistic),” he said.

He considers the data being generated as “fuel for AI.”

McDonough cited a study by McKinsey & Company finding that 30 percent of work tasks and 60 percent of jobs currently known to the world are going to be replaced by machines.

2. What AI does well, it does really well. What AI does badly, it does really badly.

“Artificial intelligence is wrong in all of the places where St. Thomas is training students to be right, and in making decisions when there’s an absence of information rather than an abundance of it,” McDonough said.

People with less than a high school degree are going to more impacted by the changes in the economy due to AI, while occupations requiring higher levels of education and experience have lower automation potential.

3. Some information is deliberate misinformation.

“The world’s biggest intelligence forces are trying to confuse us,” McDonough said. “We need to make sure that people who will be impacted by this change have opportunity for new jobs … and become more sophisticated consumers of all this data.”

He noted that, as people get more educated, they become more discerning, earn more and have a greater likelihood of being employed and pursuing the American dream.

4. Employers aren’t providing training, so we need to make college more attainable.

In general, companies no longer are providing on-the-job training, even though it still is needed.

“The answer is right here at St. Thomas,” McDonough said. “I see versions of it here on the St. Paul campus, and a version of it with Alvin’s work [Dougherty Family College] on the other side of town [on the Minneapolis campus].”

McDonough noted that, in addition to making training more affordable, it also needs to be more connected to employment so individuals get trained in skills that are needed in the economy.

5. Until we accept the challenges, we will miss the opportunities.

“The opportunities are boundless, including on this campus,” McDonough said. “The challenges sometimes feel just as boundless. Until we’re focused on that opportunity, we’ll not see the kinds of societies and kinds of leadership that will come to appreciate this country over time.”

McDonough only touched on politics briefly, during the Q&A. His visit to St. Thomas came one day after President Donald Trump visited Rochester, Minnesota.

“Somehow we’ve learned the lesson that was obvious to anyone who has watched the world … a leader can lead, or a leader can divide. And you can win on division,” McDonough said.