Universal Basic Income: A Solution to AI and Unemployment?

Updated on December 4, 2019
JC Scull profile image

JC Scull worked in international market development and taught international business relations and strategies.

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This article is about the potential damage we could experience when robots and artificial intelligence become more widespread. It also offers a possible solution to the problems of unemployment and idleness humans could experience.

Many experts claim we have nothing to worry about, since as some jobs are replaced by automation, others will be created in high tech industries. Other less optimistic pundits say the rate of job replacement will outstrip job creation. Perhaps it is too early to tell. But it isn't too early to begin a national dialog as to what could be some of the possible solutions. This article offers one possible solution.

Artificial Intelligence and Robots

Could artificial intelligence and robots trigger mass unemployment and the collapse of the economy?

The answer is yes, and no. Yes, they will most likely cause unemployment. An Oxford University study points to a probable 47% of the world's jobs to be lost due to automation from robots or artificial intelligence within the next 20 years. No, the economy need not collapse if certain precautions are taken and the proper social programs are put in place.

Whether we like it or not, robots and AI are here to stay. In several restaurants in China from Harbin to Hefei to Yancheng, robot waiters and waitresses are serving customers. Naulo, a new restaurant in Kathmandu, Nepal, uses only locally manufactured robots to serve customers. In Tokyo, Japan, 4-foot tall robot waiters controlled by people with disabilities from their own homes, serve customers. They receive videos over the internet which they use to guide the robots, in the interim earning about $9.00 an hour.

Some of these robots cost as little as $13,000 per copy; however, that price is expected to drop as technology improves and production increases. Each copy is expected to last for at least five years. Of course, this is only the beginning. Companies worldwide are joining the race to develop more agile and smarter robots, as well as artifacts with artificial intelligence and even artificial consciousness.

A robot delivers food in China
A robot delivers food in China | Source

High Risk and Low Risk Jobs

Initially, jobs at risk will be those that can be easily replaced by what is known as weak or narrow artificial intelligence. These are artifacts that can perform routine, predictable, or pre-programmed tasks such as an automated phone recording, factory robotics, burger-flipping, stocking shelves and filling prescriptions at a pharmacy. Many of these artifacts do not necessarily have to be a robot. They could just be a software that could become automated to perform repetitive tasks such as filling out reports even write basic news briefings.

Eventually, as the more advanced artificial intelligence systems or strong AI become available more complex jobs currently performed by humans will be replaced. These are artifacts that possess consciousness, sentience and some semblance of a mind. These will be machines able to apply intelligence to any problem, rather than the narrowly defined job the weak AI’s are able to do.

Some of the jobs strong AI or intelligent robots could replace are tellers, loan officers, insurance appraisers, brokerage clerks, data entry workers, library technicians, telemarketers, cargo and freight agents.

It is possible some of the jobs that could be more secure at least initially are librarians, lawyers, physicians, surgeons, dentists, nurses, supervisors of repair technicians, occupational therapists, police supervisors, and school teachers. (PC Magazine — 20 Jobs Likely to Be Replaced by Robots and 20 That Are Safe. Evan Dashevsky — June 30, 2014)

However, widespread robot and AI replacement of human labor will happen, perhaps surpassing the 47% level estimated by the Oxford University study. The substitution will happen slowly at first, speeding up as the technology improves, prices for these machines drop, and the return on investment of owning any number of these artifacts increases. The chart below shows the four categories where robots and AI will replace human labor. (Wired. Kevin Kelly — Dec 24, 2012)

How Robot Replacement of Humans Will Happen

Wired Article: Better Than Human: Why Robots Will — And Must — Take Our Jobs "To understand how robot replacement will happen, it's useful to break down our relationship with robots into four categories, as summed up in this chart." By Kevin Kelly
Wired Article: Better Than Human: Why Robots Will — And Must — Take Our Jobs "To understand how robot replacement will happen, it's useful to break down our relationship with robots into four categories, as summed up in this chart." By Kevin Kelly | Source
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The implications of robots and artificial intelligence displacing close to 50% of the world’s jobs currently performed by humans could be quite dire for the global economy. Inequality between the top 1% of earners and the other 99% of the less financially secure, may widen as robots and AI take over jobs. Competition by a growing population of unemployed for fewer jobs could be socially and politically destabilizing.

Universal Basic Income

An ever-increasing number of experts, political and industry leaders are beginning to see a day when people’s usefulness in society and their ability to earn money will be greatly diminished or perhaps vanished entirely. When this time comes, society needs to implement a system of income distribution that will more adequately meet the needs of the vast majority of people. A universal basic income could provide the means to make sure wealth continues its normal circular flow between service companies, producers and consumers.

Perhaps Society’s Only Solution as Robots Replace Human Labor

A universal basic income could be the solution to a largely idle population with no means to purchase food, clothing and maintain a roof over their heads. Such a program of income distribution could be coupled with a program reminiscent of the New Deal where some of those receiving government funds could be put to work in the repair and rebuilding of decaying infrastructure.

In spite of how the funds are distributed or the minimum requirements for those receiving funds are, a universal basic income would allow for those displaced by robots or AI to return to school in order to receive necessary personal re-tooling. These recipients of public funds could start small businesses that provide goods or services to local populations, even purchase their own robots that would help them in bringing in additional funds. The usages for a basic guaranteed income are limitless.

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The idea of a basic income is not new. In its most basic form it dates back to the 16th century in Europe. By the middle of the 19th century the idea of an unconditional basic income emerged. Since its origin, various political and industry leaders have proposed some sort of unconditional guaranteed income that would ensure national prosperity and aid those in need to be productive members of society. Some of the proponents have been:

  • Thomas Paine, political activist and philosopher who lived in the 1700's, proposed the creation of a national fund to make payments to every person upon reaching the age of 21 years.
  • Novelist Edward Bellamy in 1887 wrote Looking Backwards about a fictional society in the year 2000 in which everyone was provided with shelter, food, education and healthcare.
  • Bertrand Russell, philosopher of the early 1900’s called for “a certain small income, sufficient for necessities, should be secured for all, whether they work or not.”
  • Huey Long, politician who planned to run against Franklin D. Roosevelt before being assassinated, called for a $5,000 annual guaranteed income to every family.
  • Famous economist Milton Friedman, favored a negative income tax with which those who earned less than a minimum amount would instead of paying taxes, would receive a payment.

(Unconditional Basic Income Europe — A Brief History of Basic Income Ideas)

In the mid-1970s the Canadian province of Manitoba conducted an experiment in the town of Dauphin where money was handed out to some of its citizens. The project ended in 1979 by the then conservative government. Evelyn Forget, an economist at the University of Manitoba, recently dug up the numbers, finding that life in Dauphin had improved markedly during that period of time. Some of the results were that children stayed in school longer, hospitalization rates dropped, and work rates had remained high. (The New Yorker — The Case for Free Money — James Surowiecki, June 20, 2016)

Unfortunately, myopic thinking could prevent us from starting the type of national conversation needed to tackle the inevitable displacement of a large portion of the workforce by further advancements in technology. Understandably, in this election cycle, the voters are facing very important decisions having to do with immigration, economy, potential Supreme Court justices, terrorism, and much more. Hopefully, after the dust settles, and a new president is chosen, a dialog regarding an ever-dwindling workforce can begin.

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Questions & Answers

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      • JC Scull profile imageAUTHOR

        JC Scull 

        8 days ago from Gainesville, Florida

        Yes. Eventually something will have to get done. Thank you for commenting Mary.

      • aesta1 profile image

        Mary Norton 

        8 days ago from Ontario, Canada

        We had been following the experiments in different countries on providing universal basic income and some of the results are interesting but this is still artificial. The time will come when the economy will be challenged and only then, will the lawmakers take this seriously. Many countries are still struggling to find jobs for their people.

      • JC Scull profile imageAUTHOR

        JC Scull 

        12 days ago from Gainesville, Florida

        You know Lorna, you hit the proverbial nail on the head. If governments, - most notably ours - cannot take meaningful action on climate change and eventual sea level rise, I guess this issue will be equally as vexing and mystifying for them.

      • Lorna Lamon profile image

        Lorna Lamon 

        12 days ago

        An interesting article JC. I have to agree that as Robots replace humans in various industries, how will these people survive without an income. The idea of a basic income which also includes learning programs might be the way to go. Hospitals in particular have benefited greatly from the use of robots both in creating a more sterile environment and in certain surgeries. However, this does need to be a discussion at government levels, and lets face it, if these governments cannot see climate change for what it is, I have my doubts that the human workforce and the consequences of people being replaced by Robots will be of any interest to them.

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