Years before ChatGPT, Warren Buffett touted AI's huge potential but warned it could spark job losses and stoke political tensions

Warren Buffett.REUTERS/James Lawler Duggan

  • Years before ChatGPT’s release, Warren Buffett underlined the transformative potential of AI.

  • The investor said more-productive machines could replace workers, leaving more time for leisure.

  • Buffett suggested that widespread embrace of AI could be politically fraught but good for society.

Years before ChatGPT emerged on the scene, Warren Buffett underscored the disruptive potential of artificial intelligence technology.

OpenAI — the company behind the buzzy AI tool — recently secured a $10 billion investment from Microsoft as it prepares to fend off competition from the likes of Google-parent Alphabet and Chinese titan Baidu.

Ultimately, a frenzy of activity around AI could lead to more-productive machines replacing workers and stoking political tensions, at least in Buffett’s view.

A few years ago, the billionaire investor and Berkshire Hathaway CEO noted that he lacks any special insight into AI. “I don’t bring much to this party,” he said at his company’s annual meeting in 2017.

Yet he suggested the nascent technology could overturn the labor market.

“I would certainly think it would result in significantly less employment in certain areas,” he said. “But that’s good for society.”

The Berkshire chief explained that with widespread automation, people could work fewer hours a week but still produce the same amount of goods and services in the US. Companies could end up employing fewer workers, or people could have more time for leisure, he said.

“It would be a good thing, but it would require enormous transformation in how people relate to each other, what they expect of government, all kinds of things,” Buffett said.

“That’s enormously prosocial, eventually. It’s enormously disruptive in other ways. And it can have huge problems, in terms of a democracy and how it reacts to that,” he added.

Buffett weighed in on the subject of AI even earlier, in a CNBC interview in February 2016.

“I would think the biggest value will come when it actually replaces human labor,” he said about AI. “That is quantifiable, and machines don’t come around annually and ask for wage increases, and they don’t need healthcare.”

Buffett underlined the difficulty of investing in an AI company, given the risk that a rival comes out with a better product that makes everyone else’s technology obsolete.

Yet he seemed to largely welcome the idea of an economy dominated by self-operated machines.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if someday we got to the point where there are robots everyplace,” he told CNBC.

“They were running farms, they were running Apple, they were running Berkshire Hathaway — and all you had to do was one person could punch a button at the start of every morning, and all the goods and services that we’re getting now would be turned out by robots, or whatever?”

Read more: We put 7 burning questions to top economist David Rosenberg. Here’s what he said about the outlook for stocks and house prices, and the threat of a recession.

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