Richard Branson: Basic Income Is the 'Least a Country Should Do'

Everybody should have a safety net, says the business magnate.

Getty Images / Dan Kitwood

Artificial intelligence is poised to disrupt the economy in the coming years, as machine-learning technology begins to create wealth based on decisions that are today made by humans. The coming displacement of people from their jobs in the financial sector may well have a greater impact than the displacement of the working class from jobs in the service and manufacturing industries, given the salary differential and greater amount of money being moved in finance, compared to blue collar industries being affected by automation.

That job disruption is just around the corner, a prediction made by President Barack Obama during his farewell address: “The next wave of economic dislocation won’t come from overseas,” he said. “It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes many good, middle-class jobs obsolete.” (The Trump administration has largely been quiet on automation and AI with a few confusing exceptions).

Outside D.C., a growing number of business leaders and politicians are looking for a way to avoid the pitfalls of widespread employment gaps, and the safety net should be basic income, if you ask Richard Branson, the English business magnate.

Sir Richard Branson is the one in the middle.

Getty Images / Gustavo Caballero

In a wide-ranging interview published by Business Insider Nordic last week during the Nordic Business Forum in Helsinki, Finland, Branson reignited his call for exploration of basic income as a social safety net.

“Basic income is going to be all the more important,” Branson said. “If a lot more wealth is created by AI, the least that the country should be able to do … is that a lot of that wealth that is created by AI goes back into making sure that everybody has a safety net.”

Branson was in Finland earlier this year, where, as he wrote in a blog post on the Virgin corporate website, he learned of a two-year basic income experiment (2,000 unemployed citizens ages 25 to 58 receive 560 Euros — $660 — a month) where the money replaces other social benefits.

“A key point is that the money will be paid even if the people find work,” Branson writes in that post, published in August. “The initiative aims to reduce unemployment and poverty while cutting red tape, allowing people to pursue the dignity and purpose of work without the fear of losing their benefits by taking a low-paid job.”

It’s something that’s stuck with Branson, 67, even though his Virgin companies — involved in music, transportation, and aerospace — aren’t directly developing artificial intelligence.

“Obviously AI is a challenge to the world in that there’s a possibility that it will take a lot of jobs away,” Branson said in Finland last week. “It’s up to all of us to be entrepreneurially minded enough to create those new jobs.”

Basic income for you and me?

Unsplash / Gabriel Santiago

What is Basic Income?

Basic income is the idea that every person should receive a regular stipend from an organization — the government, in many scenarios — as a method to supplement their income but not replace it. Amounts have ranged between about $660 and $1,000 a month per person, with some also requiring the removal of government social benefits. (You wouldn’t receive unemployment benefits and basic income, for instance.)

Supporters say it would create a cushion for people to become more entrepreneurial or take innovative risks. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made the “cushion” argument in a commencement address at Harvard earlier this year. SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk, heavily involved in automation and artificial intelligence, has said basic income is an inevitability as more jobs that are done by humans today will be taken on by A.I. or robots in the future. In September, Y Combinator, Silicon Valley technology startup incubator that’s that offered early funding for Airbnb, Reddit, Genius, Twitch, and Dropbox, among others, announced it would conduct a randomized basic income trial to explore its affects on people across two U.S. states. At the governmental level, state of Hawaii is exploring the concept of basic income with a “basic economic security working group” comprised of the state’s departments of labor, business, economic development, and tourism.

Support for basic income is growing. A survey in March 2017 of 11,021 people between 14 and 65 from all 28 countries in the European Union found that 68 percent would vote “yes” on a basic income referendum, compared to 64 percent the previous year. Stateside, a much smaller poll a few years ago — 1,000 U.S. adults in January 2014 — saw only 18 percent of respondents who strongly favored “expanding Social Security to every American, regardless of age, to guarantee a basic income.” Some 17 percent “somewhat favored” it, 54 percent opposed to some degree, and 11 percent weren’t sure about it.

While debate continues, the advancement of artificial intelligence continues unabated, as does the rise of automation, which itself looks poised to eliminate at least six major job types.

Forever the optimist, Branson is doing his best to see things on the bright side:

“A lot of exciting new innovations are going to be created, which will generate a lot of opportunities and a lot of wealth, but there is a real danger it could also reduce the amount of jobs,” Branson observed in his blog post in August. “This will make experimenting with ideas like basic income even more important in the years to come.”

Thanks to robots, we’re going to need universal basic income sooner rather than later. Check out this video to find out more.

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