Between 1811 and 1816, bands of English workers destroyed machinery in cotton and wool mills, as they believed that new technology was threatening their livelihoods. The movement was said to be lead by a shadowy, perhaps even fictional character, named Ned Ludd; so the disruptive protesting band became known as ‘Luddites’. The uprising became so serious that the army was used to break it, and the ringleaders were sentenced to death.
Fifty years later, Karl Marx wrote: “The instrument of labour, when it takes the form of a machine, immediately becomes a competitor of the workman himself.” Fairly obvious stuff, but there’s no doubt that forthcoming automation of many jobs by using Artificial Intelligence will cause a seismic shift in the socio economic landscape of the world.
It’s not only taxi drivers, factory workers and shop assistants who are likely to be made redundant by machines; already AI is replacing highly educated medical specialists in diagnostics and reading X rays, CT scans and the like.
Eventually, nobody’s livelihood, as they know it, will be completely safe. As a result of preparing for this inevitable change, some countries or states are already using trial schemes of giving some citizens a basic universal income (BUI). Finland is currently trialling a scheme in which it is giving 2,000 citizens €560 (£473) every month for two years. Other states attempting similar schemes are Germany, Ontario province in Canada and Hawaii.
Initial research suggests that the people receiving the money reported reduced stress, a greater incentive to find work and more time to pursue business ideas.
The amounts and methods of payment obviously vary widely, but whatever the view, both the politics and very financial mechanics of giving people money to do nothing, or next to nothing, is completely mind-bending to generations brought up on a work ethic of ‘no pain no gain’.
So let’s take a look at the possibilities offered by a society that provides a BUI to its citizens, whilst the robots do all the work.
For a start, one’s view of BUI almost certainly depends on one’s politics, combined with a moral stance on the Protestant Work Ethic. One person’s ‘idle layabout’ might be another’s karmic creative, but some business people see the provision of BUI as enabling other budding entrepreneurs to find their feet. Richard Branson recently espoused BUI in an interview with the Independent newspaper in the UK
“a lot of that wealth that is created by AI …(should go) back into making sure that everybody has a safety net… It’s up to all of us to be entrepreneurially minded enough to create those new jobs.”
The concept, in a way, of ‘providing wealth to spend’ isn’t exactly brand new. Henry Ford effectively created mass production of cars in the early 20th century. The process created jobs, which were well paid in the context of that time, which meant that one person could effectively do the work of many dozens of people. The resultant increase in production efficiency therefore vastly reduced the retail price of the end products; as a result, cars could be bought by ordinary working class people rather than the privileged few.
The production line process spread to the production of household appliances, clothing and all manner of consumer goods. Wealth creation through automation had arrived. The difference between that ecosystem and BUI is that it’s extremely simple to work out whom to pay when the automation warrants a human being as part of the process. But when suddenly, no human beings need to be paid, or perhaps, only 2 people are required to run a 50 hectare car factory, how is the money to be distributed to those now left jobless?
Current model economies only function correctly when people have money to spend. Those without the ability to earn money will only turn to criminal activity or rely on handouts from the wealthy. Thus the simple problem of BUI comes down to who pays, who distributes, who receives and how much? Naturally these are very big, tricky questions.
Clearly, governments need to radically alter the current relationships between the state, the individual and distribution of wealth and capital. What’s obvious is that BUI can’t be ‘awarded’ on the basis of means-tested incomes and ‘availability for work’, simply because that would destroy Branson’s vision of entrepreneurs being able to launch new businesses and losing their BUI on day one of turning a modest profit. Indeed, ‘availability for work’ is all very well, if there indeed any jobs available for humans to perform.
Not least, many people feel that receiving BUI will simply remove any incentive for people to do anything other than spend all day in front of computer games. Another idea might be that people would receive BUI for performing a sort of ‘compassionate national service’, by doing things that robots will probably never be able to do, providing companionship and sympathy to the ill and depressed, creating community projects, outdoor art installations, landscape gardening etc.
But regardless of whether one’s enforced leisure time is spent making tea for your elderly neighbour or aimlessly smoking dope in front of a TV, the concept of work relates to our sense of worth, identity and our role in society. Steady jobs and professions have been so central to our way of life, that is how we have become accustomed to identifying ourselves.
Now that we are moving from an industrial society to an automated one, we have to ask what are the basic rights people should have to remain citizens. How will most ordinary people contribute and create value? And not just enough to get by, but to enjoy a fulfilling, worthwhile existence.
The trap we must certainly avoid is the simple method of the state providing tedious jobs that could be automated in any case, as a method of ‘legitimising’ BUI. Put bluntly, as a society, we simply need to find a new way of collaborating to create value and avoid anarchy.
It’s way beyond the scope of this article to speculate how, in several decades to come, things might change in this new world order. Money itself, even cryptocurrencies, may become largely redundant and a new ‘barter’ economy could rise as prices fall close to zero due to deflation via automisation.
As a result, maybe BUI will be a transitional band-aid, ‘artificial respiration’ whilst the patient figures out how to breath again. Perhaps it will form a ‘seed capital’ for the people, as a way of participating for the common good – as opposed to an unemployment benefit that can only ever create a more cruel poverty trap as the need for employment ever decreases.
Currently, the only logical safety harness to save us from this abyss of uncertainty might be to simply have state ownership of all the means of production, so that BUI becomes exactly what it says on the tin, Universal. It’s incredibly difficult to see that working, however; not least due to people’s greed, taste for competition, or simply the broad psychopathic nature of alpha individuals. In short, sadly, the whole concept of BUI might fail due to simple ‘human nature’.
Whatever your view on these thorny issues, one thing is certain. As a society, we will need to get beyond the assumption that nobody should get anything for nothing, because actually, that might be exactly what’s needed for us all to survive.
April 2018 Published in Forbes