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Bill Gates speaks at the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit in Redmond on Wednesday with Microsoft Research Labs director Eric Horvitz. (Photo courtesy Microsoft)

Sometimes even Bill Gates’ crystal ball is cloudy.

The Microsoft co-founder became one of the most successful tech moguls of all time by foreseeing and capitalizing on world-changing trends, but he acknowledged this week that it’s difficult to predict when the coming tide of automation and artificial intelligence will have the most impact on the our economy and labor market.

The biggest implications could still be decades away, Gates said in a conversation with Microsoft Research Labs director Eric Horvitz on stage at the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit in Redmond this week.

“We have many decades to get this right, but it is a fairly dramatic thing that you want to get society broadly involved in helping you think about with plenty of lead time,” he said.

When a new technology is emerging, Gates observed, it’s easy to imagine widespread adoption is just around the corner. “Speech recognition, in the ’60s, people thought we must be close,” he said. “That must be an easy thing. Now, actually, we are pretty good, but that’s 50 years.”

On the flip side, he noted that the tech industry is making substantial progress in robotics and automation.

“We’ve a little bit made it opaque by taking car driving as the paradigmatic task,” he said. “It has so much demand for reliability in dealing with arbitrary situations that are unexpected … there’s just no magic way to do it. It may actually hide from people that slowly but surely, dexterity, cost of robots, we really are making progress on these things.”

Gates called for the public sector to innovate alongside the tech industry. He is particularly focused on education. Getting things right with education can “buy many generations where the labor market is well matched to what those demands will look like.”

The private sector can also play a role in retraining the workforce. Last week, Amazon announced plans to spend $700 million over the next five years to “upskill” about 100,000 employees.

The program will train Amazon workers in high-demand fields like data science and business analysis. According to a 2018 Statista report, 21 percent of companies spend between $200-400 on training per employee each year. Amazon’s budget is significantly more than the high end of that spectrum, which has companies spending $200 million on training over a five-year period.

Still, Gates seemed skeptical of the initiative.

“When Amazon said they were going to retrain 100,000 people, what did that mean? I wasn’t sure, but that was nice of them to say that,” he said.

Gates stressed the importance of adapting government programs and benefits to prepare for automation. “Government policies, in terms of the education offerings, the way the safety net works, the way the tax system works, which currently discourages labor, you want to have a huge shift,” he said, before adding, “We have many decades to get this right.”

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