For years, we have been warned that the day will come when machines will be able to do our jobs better than we can. Now we have a time frame.
Robots will "definitely" surpass human beings in their ability to handle many job skills in 10 to 20 years, according to a leading Chinese economist.
Cai Fang, the vice-president of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the country's top think tank, and former head of its Population and Labour Economic Research Institute, sides with Microsoft founder Bill Gates and other influential technology leaders who favour the use of taxation policies and other measures to keep robots' superior learning skills from hastening their ability to put human workers out of jobs.
"I think such taxation suggested by Gates makes sense," Cai, a delegate at the ongoing National People's Congress in Beijing, said in an interview with the South China Morning Post.
"We must cap the speed and restrict the direction of robotics' development to avoid any bad effects on human beings."
Cai is among the first Chinese academics to call for restrictive measures on robots amid an investment frenzy in the country.
In an interview in February, Gates said governments should levy a tax on the use of robots to fund the retraining of those who lose their jobs and slow down automation.
"For a human worker who does US$50,000 worth of work in a factory, the income is taxed," Gates said. "If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you'd think that we'd tax the robot at a similar level?"
He also stressed that there were still many jobs that needed human hands and minds and thus could not be properly replaced by robots.
The debate is particularly fierce among China's researchers and business executives.
Chen Yidan, a co-founder of Chinese technology giant Tencent, said machines eventually would replace humans in most jobs, but that was no cause for fear.
"Looking back at history, this isn't the first time that humans have experienced dramatic technological changes," said Chen, who left Tencent in 2013 to spend time with his charitable foundation.
"Technology could possibly replace some jobs, but at the same time, it also creates jobs."
Robots are looming larger in China's future as cheap labour - a central theme of its economic success over the past four decades - becomes less plentiful.
The number of working-age people - those aged 16 to 59 - has been in decline since peaking in 2010 because of the decades-long "one child" policy.
Moreover, minimum-wage increases have made Chinese workers more expensive and prompted many manufacturing companies to either relocate to Southeast Asia or, as in the case of electronics contractor Foxconn, invest heavily in automation.
The World Bank estimates that three out of four jobs in China could be replaced by automation by 2030. Developed economies will not be spared either.
In 2015, Beijing launched its Made in China 2025 initiative, which emphasised intelligent manufacturing supported by the development of industrial robots, as a main approach to integrate information and industries to make China a technology superpower.
Driven by government policies, about 3,000 new robot-related companies - robot makers or automation solutions suppliers - emerged from 2014 to 2016, mostly in the Pearl River Delta and Yangtze River Delta, according to the China Artificial Intelligence Robot Industry Alliance.
China invested US$2.6 billion ($3.6b) in artificial intelligence companies and start-ups in 2016, ranking second globally in the category, trailing the US with US$17.9b but leading Britain with US$800 million, according to data from China's WuZhen Institute think tank.
"Demographically, China is in two races against time," Cai said.
First, it must improve productivity before the working population declined too fast, and to achieve that, innovation and the adoption of robots were needed, he said.
"Secondly, we have to figure out in what aspects human beings are better than robots - emotional quotient, judgment or creative thinking?" he said.
"After the evaluation, we can make a plan to compensate the weakest group of people - workers replaced by robots and those who will never get another job."
South Korea has introduced what is being called the world's first tax on robots - limiting tax incentives for investment in robotics amid fears that machines will replace human workers, causing mass unemployment.
Cai did not elaborate on how he thought China should tax robots, but said the revenue generated should be used to pay for a social security system that would ensure a universal basic income for those affected.
"This is a pressing issue," he said.
- South China Morning Post