Why everybody’s suddenly talking about Universal Basic Income

Will the coming robot revolution make Universal Basic Income a necessity?

It seems that wherever you look these days, people are talking about Universal Basic Income. But what is this idea and why is it suddenly so popular?

The idea is simple. It’s that the government guarantees every citizen a modest cash income as a basic right.

While once relegated to the fringes of American politics, this idea has suddenly come roaring into the mainstream with high profile endorsements from an ever growing list of tech titans.

“Ultimately, we will have to have some sort of Universal Basic Income,” said Tesla and Space X founder Elon Musk at the 2017 Dubai World Government Summit.

“We should explore ideas like Universal Basic Income,” said Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg at his 2017 Harvard Commencement address.

Universal Basic Income has even gotten play in elite political circles, with Bernie Sanders remarking he is “absolutely sympathetic to that approach” in a Vox interview and President Obama calling it something we will be “debating over the next…20 years” in a Wired interview.

So why all the sudden interest in Universal Basic Income? Well, as strange as it might sound, the answer is Artificial Intelligence.

We are on the cusp of a massive AI revolution in our economy, a revolution that has the potential to drive enormous economic growth but that could also automate away millions of jobs by giving robots the ability to do far more than they ever have before.

Already, even in just the earliest years of our young digital era, we have seen automation account for almost 90% of the job losses in America’s manufacturing sector, losses that are often incorrectly blamed on trade. In the near future, the arrival of AI powered self-driving car technology alone threatens to put 3.5 million truck drivers out of work. And that’s just one industry. Soon after that, we could see heavy job losses in the retail, restaurant, and construction industries as well. White collar jobs too, although fewer of them, could also be susceptible to AI, with advanced algorithms potentially taking over aspects of accounting, tax preparation, legal work, and even medicine.

Overall, experts say as many as 40% of jobs are at risk of automation in the coming years, opening up the possibility that millions of once comfortable and hardworking middle class Americans will suddenly find themselves unemployed and rapidly slipping into poverty. Meanwhile, income inequality could rise, with those who own the new robots essentially pocketing the lost salaries of the people the robots replace–not to mention all the vast new wealth that the robots help create.

And with this, we have a recipe for massive political instability. Growing inequality, millions of permanently unemployed with no hopeful future in sight, and a recent election in the United States that has already shown us how radical our politics can become when the powers that be ignore the grievances of disaffected, working class voters.

So what’s the answer to this problem? Well, a growing group on both the left and the right say the answer might be a Universal Basic Income. A Universal Basic Income paid for with a tax on those who benefit most from automation — whether it’s a tax on the robots themselves, the corporations who own the robots, or the wealthiest individuals who own the corporations — a Universal Basic Income set up like that could help ensure that this massive group of suddenly unemployed people do not fall into poverty while also providing them with enough stability to reset their lives.

At least, that’s how the story goes. It’s important to note that all this talk about AI slashing jobs is just a worst-case scenario. Still, this intense fear bubbling up about the coming integration of AI into our economy is the reason so many people are suddenly talking about Universal Basic Income today.