Last month, Elon Musk discussed supporting universal basic income to aid in the eventual day when robots replace human workers. After discussing the growing need for electricity, Musk switched subjects to the hotly contested issue of mass unemployment due to growing automation.
"I think we'll end up doing universal basic income," he said at the World Government Summit in Dubai. "It's going to be necessary."
"If my assessment is correct that these things probably will happen, we have to ask ourselves, what will we do when these things happen?" Musk said.
The Tesla CEO isn't the only famous face to support the idea of a universal basic income. Y Combinator President Sam Altman and eBay's Pirre Omidyar also put their support behind a paycheck to help those losing jobs at the hands of automation.
"You cross the threshold of job replacement of certain activities all sort of at once. So, you know, warehouse work, driving, room cleanup, there’s quite a few things that are meaningful job categories that, certainly in the next 20 years [will go away]," said Microsoft's Bill Gates.
Stephen Hawking said the issue would be compounded as artificial intelligence continues to improve.
"The automation of factories has already decimated jobs in traditional manufacturing," said the physicist, "and the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining."
"There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better," Musk said. "I want to be clear. These are not things I wish will happen; these are things I think probably will happen."
For Musk and others, a glimmer of hope comes from the idea of universal basic incomes.
The Theory of Need Behind Universal Basic Income
What is universal basic income? Simply put, it's a sum of money given to everyone on an individual basis without any sort of testing or work requirement.
It's no secret that robotics and automation will continue to make the workplace easier. Businesses have been looking for ways to continually automate their processes in order to both cut costs and make work safer. However, several studies have noted that millions of workers serving in "redundant" roles (those prime for automation) could be displaced. Supporters hope UBI could buoy those affected with financial burdens after being replaced by automation. UBI would continue at the very least until the learning gap can be accounted for and new jobs created.
This isn't restricted to one particular country, either. A recent study conducted by accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP found that 30 percent of jobs in the UK could face automation. They calculated 38 percent for the United States, 35 percent in Germany, and 21 percent in Japan. A recent analysis from the World Bank said that nearly two-thirds of all jobs in developing nations could be automated in the near future.
The PwC study found that women are less likely to face redundancy and replacement. Women are often found more frequently in jobs requiring social skills and creativity like education and health.
In short, workplace technology is advancing at a rate against which human workers cannot compete.
What This Could Look Like in Practice
It's important to note that automation crosses into both blue and white collar jobs. Last October, Dutch bank ING announced it would invest 800 million Euro in technology to replace 5,800 workers with a streamlined and automated system. Universal basic incomes would affect more than just an average factory worker.
In the United States alone, more than 8 million Americans work as retail salespeople and cashiers. However, concepts like Amazon Go completely automate a shopping experience with little to no human oversight needed.
UBIs could also help those millions of restaurant employees around the globe. Technology like Miso Robotic's Flippy replaces the need for a day's worth of human fry cooks.
The PwC study also noted that automation could force both genders into breaking out of traditional gender norms and adapting to newer skills. Thus, universal basic income would gradually affect both genders.
PricewaterhouseCoopers's John Hawksworth said automation sees no gender, as both "will have to be more adaptable, not stuck in the stereotypes."
Intelligence Squared U.S. recently hosted a debate to discuss the merits and issues surrounding universal basic income.
"Despite job growth, the November election is a shocking warning that the economy is off to a bad start, and many people are stuck in minimum wage jobs," said Andrew Stern, the former president of the Service Employees International Union. Those minimum wage jobs Stern mentioned would be some of the first to go through automation. He called universal incomes "human, flexible, it promotes choice and freedom, and offers security to individuals."
Stern found an unlikely agreeance with libertarian (U.S. party supporting extremely restricted government interference) economist Charles Murray. Murray said "we can afford to do this in America."
Countries like Kenya, India, France and Scotland have already bantered around the fiscal feasibility of universal basic income. However, no formal programs have been put in place yet.
In 2013, Switzerland put the concept of UBI on a referendum. However, 76.9 percent voted against the idea.
Swiss demonstration in supporting universal basic income in 2013
[Image source: Stefan Bohrer via Wikimedia Commons]
Continuing the Conversation
With any sort of major fiscal theory, there exists plenty of room for discussion and debate. Men like billionaire investor Mark Cuban said he preferred improving education over a universal basic income. He said UBI's are "one of the worst possible responses."
@scottsantens no. I think it's one of the worst possible responses
— Mark Cuban (@mcuban) February 20, 2017
In 2015, an issue of The Economist called the idea of basic income "basically unaffordable."
"...basic income is too costly and inefficient to act as a wholesale replacement for welfare," the unlisted author wrote. "It is feasible only if it is small, and complemented by more targeted anti-poverty measures."
However, supporters of UBI remind doubters that the numbers of people possibly displaced by automation are far from small.
Universal Basic Income might stave off the financial burdens associated with losing one's job. However, there will persist the generation of people who feel useless because a robot took over their jobs.
"If there's no need for your labor, what's your meaning?" Musk said in November. "Do you feel useless? That's a much harder problem to deal with."
Several recent studies have already explored anxieties surrounding both workplace automation and advancing technology in general. For more information, check out the Basic Income Studies website. The group creates a peer-reviewed journal dedicated to the issues surrounding universal basic income.