TORONTO — Former U.S. President Barack Obama said Friday that closing borders won’t create future jobs because what’s changing industries like manufacturing are automation and artificial intelligence.
Obama told a Toronto luncheon on Friday that the transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy happened over the course of 150 years, but that the technological revolution is happening in 20 years. He said it’s hard for governments to catch up to the pace of disruption.
Obama said over the next 25 years, advanced economies will have to confront the fact that there is not going to be enough high-paying full-time work as we traditionally conceive it.
“You’ll still see auto companies doing pretty well and you’ll see us manufacturing the goods that we use in the United States or Canada, but you’ll walk through those factories and they’ll be empty because they’ll be run by robots and AI,” Obama said.
“The biggest challenge that we face in terms of maintaining good manufacturing jobs in our countries come from automation, and that is going to accelerate.”
Friday’s event, which cost $1,000 per plate, was organized by Ottawa-based think-tank Canada 2020.
Obama did not mention President Donald Trump by name but said if the strategy is to close off borders, then governments are missing the point. Trump nixed the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and has called the North American Free Trade Agreement the worst trade deal in history and has threatened to withdraw from it.
Obama said that policies can make it easier or harder for people to adapt to change. He said unions are important but must recognize the original union model was built in the industrial era and needs to be refreshed in the information age. Obama said things like a higher minimum wage can help cushion the impact of the disruption.
He said all advanced economies will have to adapt and find ways in which everybody has a productive, fulfilling life that can support a family. He said young people will need the skills to compete in an economy driven by massive technological change.
“The policies we have now can build a runway so that over the next 20 years people are not so angry, so fearful and so stressed that we end up resorting to policies that are not going to be good for anybody,” Obama said.
Some of those in the audience found Obama’s talk inspiring as it touched on democracy, civil engagement and youth.
“He still has this incredible optimism about Canada, the U.S., the world, in spite of how challenging our times are right now. It’s very good for us to hear that,” Glenda Rissman said.
Sharing a similar sentiment, Cynthia Dale said her “first takeaway is how inspiring it was and how ludicrously humble he is. He’s so humble about what he did and what he continues to do.”
An American family visiting Toronto waited outside the Metro Toronto Convention Centre for several hours, hoping to catch a glimpse of Obama.
Sylvianna and Andrew Kaplan said they are grateful for the Obama administration, especially when it comes to health care. With the threat of an repeal under the Trump administration, anxieties are high for the parents who have two young-adult dependents.
“Its (health-care policies) have benefited our children. Both of them are young adults, but they still fall under our health-care plan. The biggest benefit is that they’re still under our insurance,” Sylvianna said.
A group of high school students skipped class to see the former president.
It was “an experience you can’t get in school,” Abby Mcclellan said.
Ava De Pagter said she loves just “what he stands for; everyone should be equal. No matter the race or gender.”
Obama was in town just one day after Hillary Clinton, his former secretary of state, came to the city to promote her book.
The former president was later spotted with Prince Harry at the Invictus Games.