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European Commission VP says tech progress will create more jobs than it destroys

Rapid strides in automation, artificial intelligence and digitization will result in job losses, but slowing technological progress is not the answer, said Andrus Ansip, European Commissioner for Digital Single Market and vice president of the European Commission.

No longer the sole purview of science fiction or research labs, robots and the new industrial revolution pioneered by companies such as Alphabet Inc., Facebook Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. are set to fundamentally transform the global labor force. As entire industries adjust to new patterns of consumption and employment, AI-related disruption could lead to the loss of 7.1 million jobs and a gain of 2 million jobs between the years 2015 and 2020, according to estimates by the World Economic Forum covering 15 major developed and emerging economies.

Speaking June 1 at Pioneers Festival in Vienna, Austria, Ansip acknowledged that an acute shortage of digital skills could also add to future unemployment.

In a little over a decade, machines are expected to perform a myriad of functions, from writing and translation, to driving and delivering customer services. A survey of 325 experts predicts artificial intelligence will outperform humans at all tasks in 45 years.

But Ansip insisted being left behind is "not an option."

"Progress always created more jobs than it destroyed," he said, noting that Adidas' robot-powered shoe manufacturing plant in Germany had brought jobs back to the market that had previously been outsourced to Asia.

As calls grow for a measured response to automation from businesses and governments, major industry figures including Elon Musk and Bill Gates have advocated for the idea of a universal basic income, which would guarantee all citizens a flat rate from their government, or a robot tax to confront the impact of mass unemployment. Ansip said the EC is not ready to impose either.

"I would like to support digitization of our industries," Ansip said. "Taxing [them] would slow down progress."