Trending: ‘Ultima Thule’ no more: New Horizons’ space snowman is named Arrokoth
Robert F. Smith, left, of Vista Equity Partners speaks at the EY Strategic Growth Forum. (GeekWire Photo)

PALM DESERT, Calif. — There’s been a lot of chatter in recent months about the impact of artificial intelligence and machine learning on jobs. And while automation may wipe out hundreds of thousands — or millions — of jobs around the planet, we should not be too fearful.

At least that’s the take of Robert F. Smith, the co-founder and CEO of private equity powerhouse Vista Equity Partners. Smith has a unique insight into the coming wave of innovation, since his 17-year-old firm has invested $30 billion across a wide array of software companies, including MediaOcean, Marketo, EagleView, Vertafore and Zapproved.

The way Smith sees it, artificial intelligence will not wipe out jobs completely.

Robert F. Smith (photo via EY)

“There will be what I call the augmentation of the human experience and work, not the complete displacement,” said Smith, speaking at the EY Strategic Growth Forum. “And I think there is going to be that transformation.”

Smith pointed to Vista Equity Partners’ investment in Omnitracs, a Dallas-based maker of fleet management software.  Smith admits that driverless trucks are in the future, with the potential to impact 800,000 truck drivers across the country.

However, Smith said it will likely be 10-15 years before we see fully-automated driving, and by that time many truck drivers will have transitioned to new roles within the industry. For example, he said that truck drivers will likely transition to “field technicians” — perhaps staying in the truck cab for longer periods of time to make sure they are monitoring the systems and making sure they are operating properly.

Over time, he said the role of truck driver will be phased out. But that does not mean all jobs will disappear. He continued:

“While the adoption will be faster than we all think, I think there is going to be a thoughtful dynamic of the utilization of people in that context. Again, I think it is going to be the augmentation as opposed to the complete displacement.  Just like when we went from an agrarian economy to an industrialized economy, yeah a lot of farmers went out of work, but their kids decided I am not going to be a farmer, I am going to learn how to read and I am going to actually learn how to work in a factory. We are going to have that same sort of dynamic. There are generations who say: ‘I am going to need 10 to 12 years of this. They are going to have to either retool, or get displaced. But that next generation after that … I think they are going to actually be more digitally enabled than that prior generation.”

Of course, not everyone is as bullish as Smith on the future of AI and jobs.

“U.S. factories are not disappearing: They simply aren’t employing human workers,” Moshe Vardi, an expert on artificial intelligence at Rice University, told GeekWire last year. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella also weighed in on the issue earlier this year, offering a similar viewpoint to Smith about the importance of retraining the workforce.

“We need technological breakthroughs that drive growth beyond ‘us’… in the world. … We now have to do our very best work, both as tech industry, the rest of the industry, the public sector, the government, in being able to help our people get skilled for the jobs of the future. That, I think, is the most pressing need. So now we’ve got to say, what are the moral equivalents of that? Not only are we going to upscale everyone for new jobs, [we also have to] talk about the returns on capital vs. labor achieving equilibrium. Those are, I think, the pressing challenges of modern democracies.”

Previously on GeekWire: Outcry rises when Trump’s treasury chief, Steve Mnuchin, scoffs at AI impact on jobs

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to GeekWire's free newsletters to catch every headline


Job Listings on GeekWork

Find more jobs on GeekWork. Employers, post a job here.