Learning to live with machines

We need to take the idea of a universal basic income seriously.

We need not fear him. Photograph: Getty Images.
We need not fear him. Photograph: Getty Images.

Hollywood thinks robots are scary. Films like The Terminator, The Matrix and Blade Runner imagine pretty miserable futures for humanity. The dead world of Pixar's WALL-E might just be the bleakest of them all.

We have more to look forward to than dystopia. Automation technology is going to make our lives easier. But it’s also going to put a lot of people out of work. Taxi drivers, journalists and athletes have everything to fear from self-driving cars, algorithmically-generated news and robotic arms that play a decent game of table tennis. The question of how to absorb these legions of unemployed is going to become a major policy issue.

It would be irresponsible to predict that “jobpocalypse” is around the corner. The T-800 is unlikely to replace dentists, rabbis and gym instructors: a recent Oxford University study found that “only” 47 per cent of US employment is at risk of computerisation within the next decade or two. This will relieve those who already have trouble sleeping in an age of proliferating doom scenarios. But it has not stopped Microsoft founder Bill Gates from worrying about our preparedness for a future in which men and women compete with machines for work. Speaking to the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, earlier this month, Gates argued that we are unready for mass automation:

… technology in general will make capital more attractive than labor over time. Software substitution, you know, whether it’s for drivers or waiters or nurses … It’s progressing … And so, you know, we have to adjust, and these things are coming fast. Twenty years from now, labor demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower, and I don’t think people have that in their mental model.

Gates’s solution to the looming unemployment crisis lacks imagination. He thinks governments should prop up demand for unskilled labour by lowering statutory minimum wages and reforming tax codes. In other words, politicians should beg corporations to continue hiring individuals in the meatspace and accept that living standards will stall. What will happen when machines become so cheap as to eliminate the need for paid labour is anyone’s guess. Nobody could accuse philanthropist Gates of indifference towards the poor. But there has to be a better way.

An unconditional basic income offers one way out of this dilemma. The concept is simple: have the state pay a lump cash sum into the bank account of every citizen at a regular interval. A minimum standard of living would thus be guaranteed to all whether or not they participate in the labour force. Goodbye poverty, hello robot martinis.

In a piece written last year for the NS, Alex Hern examined the pros and cons of the basic income principle. He concluded that it makes sense from an economic perspective but will never catch on politically. A universal safety net would upset the balance between capital and labour and offend sensibilities about the moral necessity of work. (Conservatives really should be for a basic income, if only because it would eliminate the bureaucracy needed to distribute means-tested transfer payments like pension credit. Milton Friedman was a great advocate of the so-called negative income tax.)

The Swiss may be about to prove Alex wrong when they vote on implementing a basic income of 2,500 francs per month. The rest of us will be more receptive to reform when the machines arrive in earnest and put half of society on the street. Automation will make some of us so fabulously wealthy that we shouldn't think twice about spreading the wealth.

Until then, basic income must become part of our policy vocabulary. Agitation for a higher minimum wage yielded encouraging results at the last Budget. A growing number of employers are adopting living wage policies. Basic income represents the next demand for anyone interested in wealth equality, whether or not they think the robots are coming. Indeed, a recent Rolling Stone article called universal social security one of the five economic reforms Millennials should be fighting for. That story generated over 50,000 Facebook likes and 10,000 comments. Radical income redistribution is a way off. It may never arrive. But it's something worth talking about.