At Columbia University in 2017, Microsoft co-founder and billionaire Bill Gates and his billionaire buddy Warren Buffett discussed increased productivity. The idea that more output per capita “should be harmful to society is crazy,” says Buffett. “If one person could push a button and turn out everything we turn out now, is that good for the world or bad for the world?” asks Buffett, the CEO of investment house Berkshire Hathaway. “You would free up all kinds of possibilities for everything else.”
“The macro picture that it enables is an opportunity,” agrees Gates. But, he adds, it “really forces us to look at the individuals affected and take those extra resources and make sure they are directed to them in terms of re-education and income policies.”
Buffett and Gates think it’s ‘crazy’ to view job-stealing robots as bad. Technological innovation is rapidly increasing the potential of human productivity. In the short run, those advances mean that many workers, particularly those in lower-skilled positions, will lose their jobs to automation. But Buffett and Gates say that increasing the potential output of each human being is always a good thing.
In the coming years, an increasing number of jobs are likely to be on the chopping block. Nearly half of U.S. jobs will potentially be replaced by robots and automated technology in the next 10 to 20 years, according to a 2013 study by Oxford University’s Carl Frey and Michael Osborne. In particular, transportation, logistics, office management and production workers are likely to be the first to lose their jobs to robots.
Those figures are more dire in less developed countries. A 2016 analysis from the World Bank estimated that roughly two-thirds of all jobs in developing nations around the globe are susceptible to replacement by automation.
Buffett cautions that the trend towards automation replacing lower-skilled labor is not new. “If we were here in 1800 and conducting this, somebody would point out that eventually tractors would come along and better fertilizer and that 80 percent of the people are now employed on the farm and in couple hundred years it is going to be 2 or 3 percent, and what are we going to do with all these people?” says Buffett. “Well, the answer is we released them.”
With fewer people needed to work on farms, more are able to pursue other skills and vocations.
“The macro picture that it enables is an opportunity,” says Gates. While both billionaires are self-avowed optimists and firmly preach the potential of a better future with robots doing more of our mundane or repetitive skills, both stress the importance of some form of wealth redistribution.
If robots take your job, the government might have to pay you to live. “Everything should be devoted initially to getting greater productivity,” says Buffett. “But people who fall by the wayside, through no fault of their own, as the goose lays more golden eggs, should still get a chance to participate in that prosperity. “And that is where government comes in.”
Buffett, Gates and SpaceX and Tesla’s Elon Musk agree that it’s a virtual inevitability that, as robots replace more and more jobs, the U.S. will have to implement a program of cash payments distributed to everyone. As founding members of The Giving Pledge, Buffett and Gates are already making moves in that direction, having committed to donate more than half of the wealth they have amassed. “A problem of excess really forces us to look at the individuals affected and take those extra resources and make sure they are directed to them in terms of re-education and income policies,” says Gates.
“Yeah, I am not sure exactly what to do about this. This is really the scariest problem to me, I will tell you.”
Transportation operators will be the first to lose their jobs, says Musk. The U.S. Department of Transportation says one in seven jobs in the U.S. is transportation-related. But no job is safe, he says. “Transport will be one of the first to go fully autonomous. But when I say everything — the robots will be able to do everything, bar nothing.”
Robots are getting smarter faster than expected. Artificial intelligence experts thought that it would be at least 20 years before a computer could beat a human playing Go, a strategy game that is more complex than chess. Last year, AlphaGo, a division of Google subsidiary Deep Mind, “absolutely crushed the world’s best player. And now it can crush and play the top 50 simultaneously and crush them all,” Musk says.
“That pace of progress is remarkable. Robots will be able to do everything better than us,” adds Musk.
Robots are now able to teach themselves physical skills faster than humans can. “You can see robots that can learn to walk from nothing within hours, way faster than any biological being,” Musk says.
“The thing that is the most dangerous — and it is the hardest to get your arms around because it is not a physical thing — is a deep intelligence in the network. “You say, ‘What harm can a deep intelligence in the network do?’ Well, it can start a war by doing fake news and spoofing email accounts and doing fake press releases and by manipulating information,” Musk says. Musk says that people are not as afraid of the potential of robotics and artificial intelligence as they should be because they don’t fully understand its potential.
“I have exposure to the most cutting edge A.I., and I think people should be really concerned by it,” he says.
“A.I. is a fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization in a way that car accidents, airplane crashes, faulty drugs or bad food were not — they were harmful to a set of individuals within society, of course, but they were not harmful to society as a whole.”
According to Musk, the solution is to increase regulatory oversight of the development and implementation of artificial intelligence as soon as possible. “A.I. is a rare case where I think we need to be proactive in regulation than be reactive,” he says.
So is there any upside to all this? Yes, say some of the most successful tech billionaires. Entrepreneur Mark Cuban has said he thinks the world’s first trillionaire will be an artificial intelligence entrepreneur. And in the big picture, robots taking over jobs can be a good thing, says Gates.