Robots, Artificial Intelligence and Wide Spread Idleness

…will universal guaranteed income save the economy…?

Could artificial intelligence and robots trigger mass unemployment and the collapse of the economy?

The answer is yes, and no. Yes, they will most likely cause mass unemployment. An Oxford University study points to a probable 47% of the worlds jobs to be lost due to automation from robots or artificial intelligence within the next 20 years. No, the economy need not collapse if certain precautions are taken and the proper social programs are put in place.

Hi, my name is Roydina. I will be your server today. Would you like for me to bring you something to drink meantime that you look at the menu?

Whether we like it or not robots and AI are both already here. In several restaurants in China from Harbin to Hefei to Yancheng robot waiters/waitresses are serving customers. Some of these robots cost as little as $13,000 per copy, however that price is expected to drop as technology improves and production increases. Of course this is only the beginning. Companies worldwide are joining the race to develop more agile and smarter robots, as well as artifacts with artificial intelligence and even artificial consciousness.

High Risk Jobs / Low Risk Jobs

Initially, jobs at risk will be those that can be easily replaced by what is known as weak or narrow artificial intelligence. These are artifacts that can perform routine, predictable, or preprogrammed tasks such as an automated phone recording, factory robotics, burger flipping, stocking shelves and filling prescriptions at a pharmacy. Many of these artifacts do not necessarily have to be a robot. They could just be a software that could become automated to perform repetitive tasks such as filling out reports even write basic news briefings.

Eventually, as the more advanced artificial intelligence systems or strong AI become available more complex jobs currently performed by humans will be replaced. These are artifacts which possess consciousness, sentience and some semblance of a mind. These will be machines able to apply intelligence to any problem, rather than the narrowly defined job the weak AI’s are able to do.

Some of the jobs strong AI or intelligent robots could replace are tellers, loan officers, insurance appraisers, brokerage clerks, data entry workers, library technicians, telemarketers, cargo and freight agents.

It is possible some of the jobs that could be more secure at least initially are librarians, lawyers, physicians, surgeons, dentists, nurses, supervisors of repair technicians, occupational therapists, police supervisors and school teachers. (PC Magazine — 20 Jobs Likely to Be Replaced by Robots and 20 That Are Safe. Evan Dashevsky — June 30, 2014)

Hello! Welcome to Uber car number 746R-X1. Thank you for choosing us for your transportation needs. The estimated time to the destination you put into your app will be 13 minutes 36 seconds based on current traffic conditions. Please buckle your seat belts. Would you like for me to activate the television to a channel of your choice?

However, wide spread robot and AI replacement of human labor will happen, perhaps surpassing the 47% level estimated by the Oxford University study. The substitution will happen slowly at first, speeding up as the technology improves, prices for these machines drop, and the return on investment of owning any number of these artifacts increases. The chart below shows the four categories where robots and AI will replace human labor. (Wired. Kevin Kelly — Dec 24, 2012)

The implications of robots and artificial intelligence displacing close to 50% of the world’s jobs currently performed by humans could be quite dire for the global economy. Inequality between the top 1% of earners and the other 99% of the less financially secure, may widen as robots and AI take over jobs. Competition by a growing population of unemployed for fewer jobs could be socially and politically destabilizing.

…Universal Basic Income — could be society’s only solution as robots replace human labor…

An ever increasing number of experts, political and industry leaders are beginning to see a day when people’s usefulness in society and their ability to earn money will be greatly diminished or perhaps vanished entirely. When this time comes, society needs to implement a system of income distribution that will more adequately meet the needs of the vast majority of people. A universal basic income could provide the means to makes sure wealth continues its normal circular flow between service companies, producers and consumers.

A universal basic income could be the solution to a largely idle population with no means to purchase food, clothing and maintain a roof over their heads. Such a program of income distribution could be coupled with a program reminiscent of the New Deal where some of those receiving government funds could be put to work in the repair and rebuilding of decaying infrastructure.

In spite of how the funds are distributed or the minimum requirements for those receiving funds are, a universal basic income would allow for those displaced by robots or AI to return to school in order to receive necessary personal re-tooling. These recipients of public funds could start small businesses that provide goods or services to local populations, even purchase their own robots that would help them in bringing in additional funds. The usages for a basic guaranteed income are limitless.

The idea of a basic income is not new. In its most basic form it dates back to the 16th century in Europe. By the middle of the 19th century the idea of an unconditional basic income emerged. Since its origin, various political and industry leaders have proposed some sort of unconditional guaranteed income that would ensure national prosperity and aid those in need to be productive members of society. Some of the proponents are:

  • Thomas Paine, political activist and philosopher who lived in the 1700’s, proposed the creation of a national fund to make payments to every person upon reaching the age of 21 years.
  • Novelist Edward Bellamy in 1887 wrote Looking Backwards about a fictional society in the year 2000 in which everyone was provided with shelter, food, education and healthcare.
  • Bertrand Russell, philosopher of the early 1900’s called for “a certain small income, sufficient for necessities, should be secured for all, whether they work or not.”
  • Huey Long, politician who planned to run against Franklyn D. Roosevelt before being assassinated, called for a $5,000 annual guaranteed income to every family.
  • Famous economist Milton Friedman, favored a negative income tax with which those who earned less than a minimum amount would instead of paying taxes, would receive a payment.

(Unconditional Basic Income Europe — A Brief History of Basic Income Ideas)

In the mid 1970’s the Canadian province of Manitoba conducted an experiment in the town of Dauphin where money was handed out to some of its citizens. The project ended in 1979 by the then conservative government. Evelyn Forget, an economist at the University of Manitoba, recently dug up the numbers, finding that life in Dauphin had improved markedly during that period of time. Some of the results were that children stayed in school longer, hospitalization rates dropped, and work rates had remained high. (The New Yorker — The Case for Free Money — James Surowiecki, June 20, 2016)

Unfortunately, myopic thinking could prevent us from starting the type of national conversation needed to tackle the inevitable displacement of a large portion of the work force by further advancements in technology. Understandably, in this election cycle the voters are facing very important decisions having to do with immigration, economy, potential Supreme Court justices, terrorism, ISIS, and much more. Hopefully after the dust settles, and a new president is chosen, a dialog regarding an ever dwindling work force can begin.