Skip to main content

Universal Basic Income: A Solution to AI and Unemployment

  • Author:
  • Updated date:
universal-basic-income-a-solution-to-ai-and-unemployment

The Problem of AI

What is the potential damage society could experience when robots and artificial intelligence become more widespread? What are the solutions 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 dialogue as to what could be some of the possible solutions. This article offers one possibility.

Will Our Jobs Disappear?

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, four-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.

Some of these robots cost as little as $13,000 per copy, but 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

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 machines will be able to apply intelligence to any problem, rather than the narrowly defined job the weak AIs 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.”

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.”

Uber of the future?

Uber of the future?

Hello! Welcome to Uber car number 746R-X1. Thank you for choosing us for your transportation needs. The estimated time to the destination you put into your app will be 13 minutes 36 seconds based on current traffic conditions. Please buckle your seat belts. Would you like for me to activate the television to a channel of your choice?

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 vanish 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 (UBI) could provide the means to make sure wealth continues its normal circular flow between service companies, producers and consumers.

Society’s Only Solution?

UBI 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, UBI would allow for those displaced by robots or AI to return to school in order to receive necessary personal retooling.

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 uses for a basic guaranteed income are limitless.

Your future cocktail server?

Your future cocktail server?

Hi, my name is Roydina. I will be your server today. Would you like for me to bring you something to drink while you look at the menu?

The idea of UBI 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 1700s, 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 1900s 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, 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 dialogue regarding an ever-dwindling workforce can begin.

universal-basic-income-a-solution-to-ai-and-unemployment

Resources and Further Reading

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.