Life with A.I.

Billionaire Bill Gates on the impact of A.I.: ‘Certainly’ we can look forward to longer vacations

Bill Gates
Adam Galica | CNBC
Bill Gates

There have been some dour predictions about the potential of artificial intelligence from some high-profile technologists. For example, billionaire tech entrepreneur Elon Musk has said AI will be more dangerous than North Korea. Legendary physicist Stephen Hawking says that AI has the potential to be the "worst event in the history of our civilization."

But billionaire Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has added a bit of levity to the conversation. Gates says AI will mean longer vacations.

"Well, certainly we can look forward to the idea that vacations will be longer at some point," says Gates, speaking to FOX Business Network on Thursday at the World Economic Forum. Machine learning will make humans more productive and therefore able to accomplish the same amount of work in less time. That's a good thing, says Gates.

"The purpose of humanity is not just to sit behind a counter and sell things. More free time is not a terrible thing," says Gates.

Surveillance, security and transcription are several areas where machine learning will make things faster and cheaper.

"AI is simply better software," Gates continues. "In these high value environments — whether it is an operating room, a jail, a factory, a courthouse — you will be able to transcribe everything that is being said, and you will be able to see things if they are safety violations even a construction site.

"And so you will be far more efficient in using resources, you will be far more aware of what is going on, and it is very cheap now because computers can see and hear as well as humans can."

Ideally, that freed up labor can go to industries that need it.

"This is a problem of excess, ... so can you redirect people to help the elderly, to reduce class size, to help out kids with special needs? You will have the resources because you will just be so much more productive," says Gates.

The transition will not be easy, says Gates. He says the government may need to create a safety net that allows employees to be retrained. That will be hard, though, because the rate of change in coming decades will be faster than it has been before. So the percentage of workers who need retraining will be high.

Tesla boss Musk has said he thinks the only option the government will have is to pay people a cash handout to live.

"There is a pretty good chance we end up with a universal basic income, or something like that, due to automation," says Musk to CNBC in Nov. 2016, referring to programs through which governments pay their citizens a monthly stipend, regardless of employment. "Yeah, I am not sure what else one would do. I think that is what would happen."

Gates did not suggest a universal basic income in conversation with FOX at Davos.

This is not the first time Gates has said that increasing productivity per worker will be good for society. At Columbia University in 2017, Gates and his billionaire buddy Warren Buffett discussed the topic.

"The idea of more output per capita — which is what the progress is made on productivity — that that should be harmful to society is crazy," says Buffett, speaking at the Facebook Live event. "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 at the Columbia event. 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."

See also:

Warren Buffett and Bill Gates think it's 'crazy' to view job-stealing robots as bad

Elon Musk thinks Tesla will be a trillion-dollar company — plus 5 other wild predictions

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg: Elon Musk's doomsday AI predictions are 'pretty irresponsible'