Should we implement a universal basic income before robots take all our jobs?
Many futurists believe we will have a so-called technological singularity around the middle of this century. If so, this means that artificial intelligence will become smarter than biological intelligence (unmodified humans). When this occurs (if it occurs), artificial intelligence will be smart enough to improve itself, and thus become even more intelligent compared to biological intelligence, and this intelligence explosion will happen at an ever-increasing pace.
[T]he first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.
Many therefore believe that when/if the technological singularity occurs, robots will take all of our jobs because they can do everything better and cheaper than humans.
But in economics, there is something called comparative advantage, which says that it is efficient that people (and robots) specialize in doing what they are relatively best at. So even if robots would be better at absolutely everything than humans, you still get more done (in a shorter time) if both robots and humans work than if only robots work. The distribution between human and robot jobs should just ("ideally") be arranged so that the sum of what we get done is maximized. 1)
So robots will probably not take all our jobs. In any case, the fact that robots and automation will allow people to work less is really a good thing. As Arthur C. Clarke has said:
The goal of the future is full unemployment, so we can play.
(Granted, there are some people who like working. This kind of desired employment could here be included in the term "play".)
If robots were to do absolutely all the work, that would presumably mean that everything would be free of charge for humans, which is not really possible since all people cannot have all things at once or all be in the same place at the same time. But maybe we can connect our minds to computers and live like kings or superheroes in our own hyper-realistic virtual worlds. If there's an abundance of computing power, that wouldn't necessarily always have to cost anything. And if we're satisfied with that, we might say that everything is free in practice...
Even if everything's not going to get completely free, or even if we don't get a technological singularity, there's still little doubt that the price of goods and services will fall sharply (measured in the number of hours we have to work to afford them) as a result of more and more automation. We do not need to work as much to survive today as we did 100 years ago. Increased automation and more efficient tools (better technology) are the reasons for this.
So, the number of hours we work per week has fallen significantly over the past 100 years, but the question is whether we could have worked even less if the government didn't control approximately half of our income. 2) Maybe the productivity increase we've seen, rather than making it affordable for people to work less, has allowed the government to grow more?
The transition to a society where people work substantially less than today will thus perhaps not be as rapid as it could or should have been. The consequence might be that we get problems with involuntary unemployment when more and more jobs are automated away. Large groups of people could lose their jobs at about the same time, and if new jobs aren't created fast enough (because there are strict rules for what kind of employment contracts the government allows), it may be difficult for them to find new jobs. This may lead to major riots.
As a solution to this potential problem, many people believe that some kind of guaranteed basic income should be implemented. The size of the basic income could for example vary depending on what you do and how you live, so as to provide incentives for good behavior or self-development/education, which is something Martin Ford has argued for in his book The Lights in the Tunnel. Or it could be an unconditional/universal basic income, given to every citizen.
In theory, I'm not entirely opposed to a basic income. If the basic income would replace all of the complicated and often dysfunctional welfare programs attempting to redistribute money today, that would probably be a huge improvement over the current situation, and it might open up a market for private welfare. 3) But if we look at what has happened in the past, it is unfortunately very likely that a basic income will not replace current welfare programs, but will be an addition to them. For that reason, I am still quite skeptical of a governmental basic income.
A basic income-like solution is perhaps still necessary to prevent riots and chaos?
But governments are, like most large organizations, slow to adapt to new changes. Governments are thus becoming more and more obsolete in a world that is changing ever faster. It is important that the solutions to the challenges we face are constantly adjusted to the world we live in. To adapt quickly is something governments are not so good at.
If there should be redistribution of income, it should therefore not be done by governments using coercion, but voluntarily, by private actors that need to compete with each other for people's trust and money.
I wouldn't have been particularly concerned about riots and chaos if the government didn't enforce so many regulations and severe restrictions on what is allowed - things that limit people's opportunities to find effective solutions to the challenges we face. A free market, where companies constantly appear and disappear and can experiment with countless different solutions, is in a much better place to solve our problems than a large, heavy, bureaucratic government, where everyone's forced to do things the same way.
Some form of basic income may be the best solution, but then again, maybe not. I can't, strictly speaking, know for sure what the best solution is. But what I do know is that if you allow everyone to try out the solutions they personally believe in the most, we will eventually end up with good solutions. How will the government be able to find these good solutions if they don't allow people to experiment..?
So, should we introduce a basic income before robots take all our jobs? Well, for one thing, it's not 100% certain that robots are actually going to take all our jobs, but my opinion is: I don't know. Allow people to figure it out without government interference. I realize, however, that in the short term, it's not realistic that the government will leave this to the free market. Another (not quite as good) alternative is that the government abandon its current welfare programs in favor of some kind of basic income. But it also seems unrealistic that the government is going to get rid of all existing welfare programs... A third possibility is that the government stops regulating what kinds of jobs are allowed and at what pay. That's perhaps not entirely realistic, either? Or maybe the government eventually won't have any other choice but to allow this?
Robots and the future of work is a complex subject. It's therefore quite possible that some of my assumptions are wrong. Maybe there's no need to worry? What are your thoughts? What do you think will happen?
1) A few decades into the future, people will probably connect their brains to artificial intelligence in the "cloud" so as to "merge with" artificial intelligence, so the distinction between humans and machines may not be as sharp as one might get the impression of in the rest of this article.
2) I tried to calculate the total taxes, including sales tax, that I paid to the Norwegian government in 2014. It was about 45%, but 50% may be a more typical number for Norwegian citizens. I wrote about it in this blog post (it's in Norwegian).
3) For some people, e.g. disabled people who need a lot of care, a basic income may not be enough. But if people are willing to pay for a social safety net, there should be a market for private actors to help with this. Today, this is hard for private actors to do, since competing with the government, which has near infinite resources, is very hard. But if the government sticks to just providing a basic income, there will be a level playing field for private actors who would like to provide welfare services on top of that, making it possible to turn a profit. A good thing about having private companies provide welfare services is that there will be competition among them - to make the most money each provider needs to be viewed favorably by the public, otherwise people will just stop paying or go to a different provider.