Industrial Revolution 2.0? Experts debate robotic threat to jobs

Billionaire Greene: Income inequality a national emergency
Billionaire Greene: Income inequality a national emergency

Billionaire investor Jeff Greene is digging into his own pockets to address what he believes is a big issue: robots.

Greene, founder of the Greene Institute, sponsored the Closing the Gap conference last week, hoping that attendees would develop solutions on creating a more inclusive global economy. According to him, a looming threat comes from technology, where he contends automation is becoming increasingly disruptive to both white-collar and blue-collar jobs.

He warned that "what globalization did to the blue-collar worker in manufacturing over 30 or 40 years, artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data, robotics I believe will do to the white-collar workforce in the next five to 10 years," Greene said. His comments echoed the widening opinions of experts who believe robots and AI pose a serious challenge to middle-class vitality.

"This is a national emergency and I'm going to address it myself if no one else will," Greene said.

Not everyone agrees. Ken Moelis, CEO of investment bank Moelis & Co., told CNBC that while changes in technology might be disruptive, they aren't necessarily going to wipe out swaths of the labor force. In fact, he said technology can be fundamentally good for consumers, but less so for some businesses.

"In our world right now you have so much technology driving price transparency, pricing power, efficiency. These are great things," he told "Closing Bell" last week. However, "if you are a retailer ... you better take your profit down and give the consumer an awfully good deal or Amazon is going to replace you."

According to Greene, Amazon isn't just replacing retailers — it's replacing employees as well.

"Just look at an Amazon distribution center, the robots are stocking the shelves. Go take a look at the video of a Tesla factory, the welders are robots," Greene said. "This is really happening. This is not 'The Jetsons' anymore. This is happening today."

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Labor experts are of two minds on the robot trend. While job losses are perceived as inevitable — Gartner recently predicted robots would take over a third of all jobs by 2025 — the need for more automation is also expected to create new jobs, other economists say.

A Bank of America Merrill Lynch and University of Oxford report found that up to half of jobs could be replaced in 20 years by robots or computerization, especially low-paying jobs in the retail sector. There's already evidence of this process happening at some major retailers.

This fall, Best Buy is testing a robot named Chloe to roam the aisles of one of its New York City locations, and check inventory levels there. Another retailer, Orchard Supply Hardware (a chain owned by Lowe's) is using a robot called OSHbot to help customers at a San Jose, California-area store find items. OSHbot is even bilingual, with Spanish translation abilities.

Yet retailers are moving to reassure the public. In an emailed statement, a Best Buy spokeswoman told CNBC: "Chloe is one test in one of our stores and does not replace any employees. Chloe makes it easy for customers to find products like DVDs and music, so the store's employees are able to spend more time helping customers with more complex technology needs."

Lowe's echoed that sentiment, saying that robots like OSHbot will simply enhance employees' abilities to serve customers by allowing them to focus on more complex questions.

"Our Lowe's employees are one of our key competitive advantages, as they have a high degree of home improvement project expertise that customers know and trust," the company said in an emailed statement. "A robot will never replace this personal relationship."

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Robots and technology stealing jobs has been a concern that has been around for centuries. Yet some observers point out that every time technology resulted in certain jobs being obsolete, the workforce has adapted.

Earlier this year, consulting firm Deloitte produced a report that analyzed 140 years of data. It found that since 1871, technology has created more jobs than it's destroyed, suggesting that job growth in traditionally white-collar fields has more than offset the loss of jobs in the agricultural and manufacturing sectors.

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Greene, however, thinks this time is different. The answer lies in the fact that the U.S. used to have a relatively closed economy whereas now, labor gets replaced either with a tech solution or cheaper foreign-born labor.

According to Greene, one solution to the modern job landscape would be lifelong education. It's all about "teaching our kids that they may have 20 jobs in their lifetimes and they have to learn how to adapt," he said.

"I have friends whose kids graduate top law schools and can't get a job for a year or two. We have to do something about it because the job picture is getting worse and worse," Greene added.

This is where retraining programs could become crucial, said Greene. Job retraining programs are seen as a critical part of offsetting what economists call a widening "skills gap" between what employers need and what job seekers can offer.

"Some people, they work in a job, it's not their fault that that industry gets automated and they lose their job. We have to have a safety net to hold them over until … and then we have to retrain them and give those that want to work a chance to have another job."