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AI will obliterate half of all jobs, starting with white collar, says ex-Google China president

  • Everyone needs to rethink the practical and social impact of fewer jobs in the future, Kai-Fu Lee says.
  • The chairman and CEO of Sinovation Ventures believes about half of all jobs will disappear over the next decade.
Robots
iLexx | Getty Images

The upcoming worldwide workforce reckoning that artificial intelligence is expected to bring will happen much sooner than many experts predict, the former president of Google China told CNBC on Monday.

Kai-Fu Lee, now chairman and CEO of Sinovation Ventures, believes that about half of all jobs will disappear over the next decade and be replaced with AI and the next generation of robots in the fastest period of disruption in history.

"AI, at the same time, will be a replacement for blue collar and white collar jobs," said Lee, a renowned Chinese technologist and investor who held positions at Apple and Microsoft in addition to Alphabet's Google. But white collar jobs will go first, he warned.

"The white collar jobs are easier to take because they're pure a quantitative analytical process. Reporters, traders, telemarketing, telesales, customer service, [and] analysts, there can all be replaced by a software," he explained on "Squawk Box." "To do blue collar, some of work requires hand-eye coordination, things that machines are not yet good enough to do."

"The white collar jobs are easier to take because they're pure a quantitative analytical process" -Kai-Fu Lee, Chairman and CEO of Sinovation Ventures

Lee knocked down an argument that the jobs lost will create new ones to service and program AI and robots. "Robots are clearly replacing people jobs. They're working 24 by 7. They are more efficient. They need some programming. But one programer can program 10,000 robots."

Besides taking jobs beyond factory floors, robots and AI are already starting to takeover some of the mundane tasks around people's homes. Lee pointed to the Amazon Echo as an example.

"The robots don't have to be anthropomorphized. They can just be an appliance," he said. "The car that has autonomous driving is not going to have a humanoid person [driving]. It's just going to be without a steering wheel."

Lee said that while economic growth "will go dramatically up because AI can do so many things so much more faster" than humans, it'll force everyone to rethink the practical and social impact of fewer jobs. "If a lot of people will find happiness without working, that would be a happy outcome."

But in a Washington Post op-ed last month, Lee argued against universal basic income, the idea of governments providing a steady stipend to help each citizen make ends meet regardless of need, employment status, or skill level. UBI is being bandied about as a possible solution to an economy that won't have nearly enough jobs for working-age adults.

"The optimists naively assume that UBI will be a catalyst for people to reinvent themselves professionally," he wrote. It may work among Silicon Valley and other highly motivated entrepreneurs, he added, "but this most surely will not happen for the masses of displaced workers with obsolete skills, living in regions where job loss is exacerbated by traditional economic downturn."

Lee sees a different plan of action. "Instead of just redistributing cash and hoping for the best … we need to retrain and adapt so that everyone can find a suitable profession."

Some of the solutions he offered in his commentary include developing more jobs that require social skills such as social workers, therapists, teachers, and life coaches as well as encouraging people to volunteer and considering paying them.

Lee wrote, "We need to redefine the idea of work ethic for the new workforce paradigm. The importance of a job should not be solely dependent on its economic value but should also be measured by what it adds to society."

"We should also reassess our notion that longer work hours are the best way to achieve success," he concluded.

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