Why A.I. Experts Are Dismissing Basic Income as a 'Cute Tech Hack'

The mood has markedly shifted.

Unsplash / Sharon McCutcheon

The hunt is on for solutions to the problem of automation and job loss, and a radical solution may be required now more than ever. The latest study from the London School of Economics points to how vexing the problem really is: the college revealed last month that a 10 percent increase in the minimum wage was linked to a 0.73 percentage point drop in automatable jobs done by low-skilled workers. In other words, the rise of robots and A.I. may put more jobs at risk.

Unfortunately, universal basic income may not be the silver bullet fix its proponents have sometimes made it out to be. Some hail the idea of paying everyone a fixed minimum amount of money as a way of protecting people against job losses and reducing the need to work in the wake of A.I.-powered robots and automation. Just a year prior, it was being hailed as the catch-all solution, with Mark Zuckerberg backing the idea in a viral commencement address.

These days, the hype has cooled and the benefits are less than certain. One of the world’s most prominent experiments with UBI in Finland lapsed earlier this year. By this spring’s London Futurists conference on June 2, many of the field’s top minds gathered at Birkbeck, University of London seemed more focused on considering alternatives.

“Basic income is to government as blockchain is to banking: a cute tech hack that ignores millennia of hard work developing robust systems,” said Joanna Bryson, a senior research fellow at the University of Bath’s department of computer science who specializes in A.I. and ethics.

“A Cute Tech Hack”

For Bryson, UBI is the answer to a problem that may never materialize. Artificial intelligence does not necessarily lead to job losses, as the world has both more people working than ever and more A.I. than ever.

In the case of customer service, for example, A.I. has often driven up the number of people calling so branches needed more humans to complete those jobs. More importantly, one of UBI’s most touted benefits — that it would make it much easier for people to change jobs — could inadvertently have the knock-on effect of increasing inequality: lots and lots of good jobs but only for the most qualified people.

Indeed, some of UBI’s mose vocal critics come from the left, people like Daniel Zamora, a postdoctoral sociologist at the Université Libre de Bruxelles and Cambridge University who in a Jacobin piece from December 2017, argued that the policy “isn’t an alternative to neoliberalism, but an ideological capitulation to it.”

Would a UBI Be Fair?

Some of the most valid criticisms about the UBI raise questions about whether a basic income would still wind up redistributing resources to those who need it least.

“Does the new Duke of Westminster really need a universal basic income?” Steve Wells, chief operating officer at publishing firm Fast Future, said at the event.

Fast Future’s Helena Calle said that these funds could be better targeted to support the growing needs of the economy. The demand for technical skills is expected to surge 55 percent by the year 2030, according to McKinsey. Scholars like Bryson say this could create an unsustainable trend that cries out for a need to commit firms to delivering skill development. A “guaranteed basic services” approach could also wind up supporting people by providing free travel, healthcare, water and more.

On the other hand, addressing the problems of poverty through services alone are may not generate some of UBI’s potential ripple effects throughout the economy, or free people up to spend less time punching clocks and more time engaging in society-improving pursuits and civic engagement.

“I say, and this is where I’ve changed my mind in the last year or two,” David Wood, chair of London Futurists and a pioneer of the smartphone as co-founder of Symbian, told the hall. “Even a small universal basic income would be an important step forward.”

Wood cited the multiplying effect of an income that gets passed around through the economy as people choose to spend more. He also sees UBI as an effort that could improve participation in social structures, a viewpoint that he argues for in his new book on transhumanist superdemocracy.

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