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Microsoft exec: Why I’m not worried about robots taking people’s jobs

JP Mangalindan
Chief Tech Correspondent
The World Economic Forum estimated that up to 5.1 million jobs could be displaced by 2020.

Microsoft’s CTO for Data, Raghu Ramakrishnan, says he’s not too concerned about the artificial intelligence revolution that’s supposed to displace millions of jobs over the next few years.

“If I take the employment side of it, I’m not even sure it’s on top of my list of things to worry about,” Ramakrishnan told Yahoo Finance at this week’s tech-focused Collision conference in New Orleans.

Regardless of his attitude, some critics are extremely worried, fearing technology will come for many jobs that workers currently rely upon. The World Economic Forum released a report in January 2016 that predicts AI, machine learning, and other nascent technologies will spur a so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution” that replaces 5.1 million jobs by 2020. According to the report, jobs across every industry and every geographical region in 15 of the world’s largest economies — Australia, Brazil, China, Japan, the UK and the US, among others — will be affected.

Microsoft CTO for Data Ragu Ramakrishnan. Source: Microsoft

Ramakrishnan, who runs Microsoft’s (MSFT) team for cloud, data management and analytics services, pointed to the industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries to back up his optimistic attitude despite these recent reports of a robot revolution.

“By comparison, on a percentage basis, the impact of that is vastly greater than what we’re talking about now, and if you look at the history of it, yeah, I think the world ultimately came out ahead,” Ramakrishnan explained.

“For every single thing you displace, the nature of the beast is, some other opportunity opens up, and it is beyond me to think about all the common permutational aspects and combinations. But realistically, we are in a far better place than we were 200 years ago or 2,000 years ago. It’s been these episodic functions — something hugely disruptive — that settle, and typically, they settle on a higher platform.”

How AI helps (not hurts)

Ramakrishnan joins a chorus of high-profile members of the tech community who believe the AI revolution will be a force for good even if it upends some of the methods and processes we presently use to get things done. Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer told Yahoo Finance this January at CES that the focus by some critics on job displacement overlooks the larger benefits AI and other technologies. As one example, he pointed to AI reducing the number of car accidents that happen every year thanks to intelligent auto-breaking systems.

Likewise, Ramakrishnan suggests newer technologies can benefit workers by connecting them to users in new ways.

“That’s what I think is going to happen,” Ramakrishnan added. “We’re talking about, ‘oh, my god, if technology displaces a number of people, who are roofless, what’s going to happen? Well, there will be a Handyman.com that will create a new way of connecting for them, that will create a pathway into jobs that were previously not economically harvestable. Unexpected, new things like these, will help make this transition easier than some might think.”