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Google, YouTube and the future of the American worker

by Alyssa Newcomb and Ben Popken /  / Updated 
Image: Google CEO Sundar Pichai and YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki speak at the Revolution Town hall at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco on Jan. 19, 2018.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai and YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki speak at the Revolution Town hall at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco on Jan. 19, 2018.Kim White / MSNBC

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SAN FRANCISCO - Artificial intelligence will transform the way we live and work more so than even "fire or electricity," Google CEO Sundar Pichai said Friday at an exclusive town hall discussing the future of the workplace.

Pichai, who was joined by YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, said that while artificial intelligence is important, "we have to be concerned about it too."

At an exclusive town hall hosted by MSNBC and Vox Media's Recode in San Francisco, the two tech CEOs shared their thoughts on the future of work -- from President Donald Trump’s treatment of foreign workers to how technology is changing the way we work.

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“Revolution: Google and YouTube Changing the World” premieres Sunday, January 28th at 8:00 p.m. ET on MSNBC and will live stream here. Join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #REVOLUTIONSF.

Related: Google CEO Sundar Pichai says digital technology must empower workers, not alienate them

Artificial intelligence is a topic that has famously divided two other tech titans: Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. The Facebook CEO has made the case that AI can improve lives, while Tesla founder Musk has warned we need to be cautious.

"I'm not personally scared," sad Wojcicki. "We live in a time of important technological change and we need to communicate what we're doing."

While embracing technological change is important, Pichai said the worries over whether AI can swoop in and steal human jobs is valid.

Not only will government need to play a role, he said, but it is also "going to be important to continuously train people." Whereas two or three decades ago, people would go to school and that would serve them through their careers, he said "that's not going to be the case any longer."

The need for digital savvy is continuing to grow. Jobs requiring “medium-digital” skills in the United States have grown from 40 percent in 2002 to 48 percent in 2016, according to a report from the Brookings Institute.

With a technology skills gap, there's also the question of the future of foreign-born tech workers in the United States. While they're the backbone of Silicon Valley, the Trump administration has already tightened H-1B visa rules.

Pichai was born in India. Wojcicki is the daughter of immigrants. Both know the important role foreign technology talent plays in Silicon Valley, whether that be at their companies or founding start-ups.

Nearly three-quarters of tech workers in Silicon Valley are foreign born, according to a report.

"We want to be a company that has a point of view," said Wojcicki. "H-1B is important to our company in terms of competitiveness. We have many individuals who feel immigration is important. At the same time, we want to be working with the government we have. We are a company with many different users."

In 2015, Google and YouTube parent company Alphabet replaced the company's famous slogan - "Don't be evil," with a new guiding principle: "Do the right thing."

So, with technology increasingly being able to do things faster - and cheaper - than humans could ever do, what is the right thing for Google and YouTube to do?

"Automation can displace jobs. It's a fact of life. We all need to take responsibility," said Pichai.

But what about the blacksmiths, asked Recode's Kara Swisher, who co-hosted the event.

"We have to recognize that we live in this time where there is innovation. You talk about the blacksmiths. Should we not have trains? Trains have enabled a lot of advances," said Wojcicki.

What's needed, she said, is more partnerships between corporations and the government to create the "right support systems to be able to retrain" people for the next set of jobs on the horizon. That includes companies like YouTube also committing money to retraining the American workforce.

"You need to move forward with that technology responsibly," she said.

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