If automation takes over as extensively as people like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg think it will, a sizeable portion of our population will become rapidly redundant. We don’t know for sure just how superfluous humans will become employment-wise in the post-robotic era; however, we do know at least some vocations will become extinct and the humans who currently occupy them will, at the very least, need to re-skill if they wish to be employable.
To take care of the interim period while people re-skill (and, perhaps even to cover those who don’t have the capacity to handle a new role from the reshuffled deck of jobs available to humans), thought leaders in the automation arena are recommending a Universal Basic Income (UBI).
Such a system would be reminiscent of the Go square in Monopoly which gives you $200 just for crossing it. Those with investments or value-added employment would get extra money to afford them more luxurious lives. But everyone would be given at least enough cash to cover their basic survival needs.
Isn’t that just legitimised dole bludging?
Well, kind of. Public policy professor, political commentator, and author, Robert Reich, explains it as an upgrade to welfare systems like Centrelink. While this would conceivably have the benefit of simplifying the complex system we currently have and cutting back on administrative costs, the fears are it would lead to a whole lot of this:
Our population would bulge with blisters and vesicles full of people happy to just live off the UBI and not work. Those developing the technology everyone needs to exist in such a world will have the capacity to be rich but their taxes will also be paying for the UBI. So when they sell their tech to the system they’re supporting, they’re just being given their own money back. Imagine giving someone $2 so they can buy a chocolate bar from you? Starts to seem mighty unfair when broken down this way.
How could the UBI be fairly paid for?
Turns out this is the tricky part. Unless you’re cool with a slow, mass population cull, we need to make sure the unemployable are taken care of. But the money has to come from somewhere. Yet the current tax system doesn’t seem like a viable option. Problem is, neither does anything else anyone’s come up with so far. Which is why UBI is still the popular suggestion despite its distinct aroma of impossibility.
Staunch supporters of the UBI claim the base payment will prevent the masses from starving, and, as the boredom and dissatisfaction of doing nothing sets in, bit by bit we’ll all find activities to do which give us enjoyment and income supplementation. Gone will be the days of coffee-driven wage slavery and people bemoaning their ‘Mondayitis’ or thanking God it’s Friday.
Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, is so smitten with the concept he said, during his commencement speech at Harvard, he’s happy to help foot the bill:
“We should explore ideas like universal basic income to give everyone a cushion to try new things. We’re going to change jobs many times… we’re all going to make mistakes, so we need a society that focuses less on locking us up or stigmatizing us. And as technology keeps changing, we need to focus more on continuous education throughout our lives… the freedom to pursue purpose isn’t free. People like me should pay for it.”
While he might be getting a bit idealistic with the cost-covering side of the enterprise, the sentiments that drive his desire to bring in the UBI are solid. And, while a Universal Basic Income may not be our ultimate answer to the looming unemployability of humans, talking about it does get us thinking about the right questions to lead us to a workable solution.