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Obama praises Pittsburgh, slams science skeptics and admits he's 'a nerd' in 'Frontiers' talk

PITTSBURGH — In a visit here on Thursday, president Barack Obama pointed to Pittsburgh as a shining example of science and innovation helping to usher American cities into the 21st Century. He also called for national commitments to these fields to continue long after he’s left the Oval Office.   

“Most have heard how this city is testing a fleet of self-driving cars,” Obama said to the crowd at the White House-organized Frontiers Conference at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). The conference was hosted both by CMU and the University of Pittsburgh. 

“The reason that U.S. Steel Tower is now also the corporate home of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) is because Steel City is now home to ground breaking medical research.”

He continued: “And you are investing in young people, with after school STEM programs and Girls of Steel Robotics teams. And that’s how this city came back after an iconic industry fell on tough times. It doubled-down on tech innovations.”

Obama is in Pittsburgh as part of his administration’s final push for investment in American research and development, using the opportunity to also announce $300 million set aside for new research initiatives. Obama is also calling for a continuation of science-driven policy choices in the years ahead.

“I confess, I’m a science geek, I’m a nerd and I don’t make any apologies for it,” he told the crowd at CMU. “I don’t make any apologies for it. It’s cool stuff and it is that thing that sets us apart.”

But while Thursday’s conference amounted to a celebration or reinforcement of Obama administration ethos, beyond this campus and city, American faith in science is plummeting.

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Certainly aware of this, Obama took aim at some of those same skeptics, in particular, those of them who currently occupy Capitol Hill offices.

“And that’s why I get so riled-up when I hear people willfully ignoring the facts, or sticking their heads in the sand about basic scientific consensus. It’s not just that their position leads to bad policy. It’s also that it undermines the very thing that has always made America the engine for innovation around the world.”

President Barack Obama greets, from right, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald after arriving at Pittsburgh International Airport in Pittsburgh, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016. Obama will speak in Pittsburgh at the “White House Frontiers Conference,” where aides said he’d announce new funding for technology and research and tout innovations like self-driving cars and artificial intelligence.(Michael Henninger/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP) 

He continued: “It’s not just that they’re saying climate change is a hoax, or that they’re taking snowballs to the Senate floor to prove the planet isn’t getting warmer. It’s that they do everything to cut funding for research and development. … We don’t listen to science just when it fits our ideology, or when it fits the result we want. That’s the path to ruin. Sixty years ago, when Russia beat us into space, we didn’t deny that Sputnik was up there.” 

Obama has spent much of his tenure arguing for the return of science — and the belief in science — to what he calls its rightful place in the American identity and ideal.

But in addition to his calls for greater government investment in the field, Obama has also pushed for more cost-effective partnerships between public and private sectors.

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His address at Thursday’s conference came just days after he announced plans for an American-led and private sector-backed mission to Mars by the 2030s. This after drastic cuts to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s operating budget during his time in office.  

In an editorial for CNN, Obama touted partnerships between government and private sectors as key to unlocking the heavens going forward, writing, “Getting to Mars will require continued cooperation between government and private innovators, and we’re already well on our way. Within the next two years, private companies will for the first time send astronauts to the International Space Station.”

But there are limits to the president’s faith in unfettered progress, or at least from a free market standpoint: He has admitted to having misgivings about the human consequences of artificially intelligent (AI) technologies, a boom in which is happening at institutions like CMU right now.

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Obama recently told Wired magazine that AI’s potential to replace human workers remains a concern for economies like America’s, adding “low-wage, low-skill individuals become more redundant and while jobs may not be replaced, wages are suppressed.”

According to a White House report from June, we may already be seeing signs of this.

READ MORE: 10 Examples of Artificial Intelligence You’re Using in Daily Life

The report found that as the pervasiveness of digital technology has grown, the number of working U.S. men between the ages of 25 and 54 has fallen, from 98 percent in 1954 to 88 percent today.  

According to a CNN Money report on the subject: “A 2013 Oxford study concluded that 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at risk of being handled by machines over perhaps a decade or two. Some experts fear we’re headed toward mass unemployment.”

Tim O’Reilly, founder of the tech-centric O’Reilly Media company, who spoke before the president at Thursday’s event, was decidedly more optimistic. 

Quoting American entrepreneur and venture capitalist, Nick Hanauer, O’Reilly argued: “Technology is the solution to human problems. And as long as we haven’t run out of problems, we won’t run out of work.”

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