Understanding UBI

Note: this article is an op-ed and does not reflect the views of 10Mag or Teen10Mag.

The economic paradigm we have relied on since the advent of human economic activity – machines – is on the brink of experiencing a revolutionary change.  With the introduction of advanced A.I. systems and cheaper, more sophisticated automation machines, experts are stating that the grand majority of “Human Labor” will be taken over by “Machine Labor.”  This creates an urgent ethical conundrum, where our political systems must create a means to allow the everyday person to survive in a post-work world where wages are not the main source of sustenance for survival.  

Unfortunately, the main ethical questions we ask during this delicate period are still confined to the framework of the past.  All of this though, is going to be for naught if nobody will have a job in the matter of a couple decades. John Maynard Keynes once said that “in the long run, everyone is going to end up dead.” But recent developments in automation and even “weak” artificial intelligence presents a different problem that will affect us far before anyone is dead: now, in the long run, everyone is going to end up unemployed.

The fight for “Equal Pay for Equal Work” will not mean much if there is no work for any pay. The fight for “15 (dollars as minimum wage)” isn’t going to do much if nobody is hired for low-skill manual labor. When entire industries such as the trucking industry will be monopolized by “Platform Industries” such as Google or Tesla, it is imperative that our political systems provide contingencies to allow these people to survive with dignity intact. This is why I believe that the topic of providing Universal Basic Income (UBI) in the age of full automation is the most important ethical question in the world today.

The concept of a robot apocalypse has entertained the human imagination for a considerable amount of time in our history. The image of a belligerent and hostile A.I. that will attempt to destroy humanity is rife in works of fiction.

The good news is that our technology is far from capable of creating such self-aware, fully autonomous machine minds: or what the industry calls “Strong A.I.” It is said that the current technology is far from understanding consciousness and self-awareness to be able to program an algorithm that is capable of doing such feats.    

The bad news is that the A.I. current tech industries are developing and starting to put out in the market is not this category of machine minds, but rather something the industry calls “Weak A.I.” This form of A.I. is already widespread in our everyday lives with numerous names: “Internet of Things (IOT)” and “Machine Learning Algorithms” that are taking away what was traditionally considered areas where people thought would be safe from automation. Weak A.I.  learns, adapts, and solves problems presented to it by human input more efficiently and quickly than what normal human labor could do before. A.I. is already displacing occupations ranging from Radiologists, Oncologists, Accountants, Financial Analysts, and Teachers. Automated Kiosks are already displacing cashiers in fast food restaurants and coffee shops. The trend continues where corporations are taking out entire sectors of their workforce, such as Wall Street pit traders and middle management with automated programs.

Two researchers from Oxford have argued that over the next 10 years, 47% of all the work we know today will become irrelevant, including jobs that we traditionally call “professional” or “white-collar” work. Eventually, the robot apocalypse will not come in the form of a war machine, but rather in the form of innocent contraptions that slowly take away the “human” in “human labor”.

Skeptics will argue that we will adapt to this “apocalypse” too, because we have adapted to new technologies in the past all this time. The problem is that this time, the technology is affecting us differently. Around 200 years ago, 64 men in the Industrial Revolution England went to trial. These were the original “Luddites” who went on a rampage and burned mills and machinery that they believed to have “stolen” their jobs. But their campaign was fruitless because the industrial revolution did leave us all better off. What we did back then was harness power complemented by human brawn that was needed in labor. There was a cooperation between man and machine that ultimately made it possible for mankind to boost employment, growth, and income.

The modern technological revolution is different; it exposed not the limits of human brawn but the human brain. And instead of being complementary, modern technology is displacing human beings. Modern machines are now capable of something called “Machine Learning”, where programs and algorithms are connected to the internet and can learn from analyzing big data, adapt and change its programming, and ultimately solve problems not initially installed by human creators.

Corporations will soon realize that the robot is much easier to hire than a human being.  It asks for neither a raise nor a vacation. It doesn’t complain about being overworked; it can be turned on 24 hours if necessary.  One by one, human labor will be replaced by the latest automation system sold by one of the major so-called “Platform Companies” in Silicon Valley such as Google, Amazon, Tesla or Uber. Ultimately, the principal reward of modern technology is accruing to the owners of capital, and not the owners of labor. In this process, millions will lose jobs, without alternative jobs or other means to earn a living and survive.

And we are not prepared to face this dystopian forecast. Klaus Schwab, the Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, has stated in the 2016 Davos Forum that “we feel that we are not yet sufficiently prepared for the Fourth Industrial Revolution; which can overwhelm us like a tsunami, which will change whole systems.” But doing nothing in the face of clear and (relatively) imminent threats to the human condition due to the sweeping impacts of automation is foolish and unethical. Currently, lack of preparation is no excuse to remain this way and let the grand majority of humanity take the brunt of the damage the future will present us.

This is why numerous entities speak of the inevitability of “universal basic income” (UBI): the idea that the government should provide a set sum of money to its citizens unconditionally.

The concept at first may seem rather radical and absurd, but entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg and dozens of others have recently advocated UBI as the means to the future – a system that is absolutely necessary in a world where most people will be unemployed.  

The reason why the idea of a UBI was traditionally so controversial was due to the idea that it was considered an extreme version of the social safety net we are already familiar with. UBI was thought to be a welfare payout scheme on steroids: it felt like undeserving, lazy people were going to get free money from the other “productive” members of society. It also had the stigma attached that people that are not afraid of “starving” would not work.  

This perspective of UBI is only true under the old paradigm where the free market system of labor still, for the most part, could function as a means to redistribute income through wages from labor.  However, as the Fourth Industrial Revolution is slowly but surely creeping in to make human labor obsolete; it is now a question of how we are to redistribute income and purchasing power when there is no work to be done.

This is why we need to act now and establish coping mechanisms and a new paradigm that will prepare ourselves in what experts call a “Techno-Feudalistic” society, where an extremely small number of corporations will soon control all of the wealth.

Even from a strictly pragmatic standpoint, an economy would not work if there were no consumption to drive the market forward.  If there are less and less people with disposable income because there is no work to be done to earn wages, there would be devastating economic stagnation or even a downward spiral that could implode our civilizations.

We often speak of the ethical responsibilities we have to our future generation when we urge our fellow humans to act, as we do when talking of preserving the environment or providing education for our posterity.  I would say our most urgent and impactful mission would then be to prepare for what Klaus Schwab has called a “tsunami” that will devastate our livelihoods. We still have time to act politically to establish the levies to prevent the Tsunami from wiping out innocent people’s lives and their means to survival.  It is time we act.


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