Automation and UBI: For Benefit or Affliction?

Automation is going through a phase of upward swing, thanks to advancements in the field of ‘Artificial Intelligence’ (AI) and Robotics. While Robots produce high quality work with high precision, Artificial Intelligence has upped the level giving machines the ability to think with self-improvement capabilities. Ideally, this development should have been cheered about as yet another milestone in the field of technology. However, automation is already being dubbed as ‘double-edged weapon’ for its potentially adverse impact on jobs. Important to note that this view is not propagated by mere ‘naysayers’ but being seriously debated by the best minds around the world.

Arguments for Automation:

It would be unfair to view automation only from the aspect of its adverse impact, for it is equally loaded with great advantages as well. Undoubtedly, efficiency, productivity and quality get boosted exponentially with automation. Significant reduction in ‘direct labour cost’ implies enhance profitability for the companies. It is also argued that automation will set people free from routine and mundane works and thus enhance creativity and innovation.

Arguments against Automation:

The negative impact of automation on jobs cannot be dismissed as mere apprehension. Numerous studies, using scientific methodology, have unambiguously concluded that while in certain sectors jobs are already being lost to automation, the threat is imminent for almost every sector. It is projected that by 2030, around 57% jobs would vanish globally. According to the World Bank report, the impact would be even more severe in developing countries like India (69%) and China (77%). The scenario becomes dreadfully alarming when these percentages are converted into absolute number of workers who are at the risk of losing their jobs — it is in millions! And it is not that only labour intensive sectors like manufacturing and construction or agriculture are impacted by automation. Even the ‘white-collared’ service sector are equally affected if not worse. IT professionals are already losing jobs. And if you are an insurance agent, be very scared because 95% jobs in this sector are at real risk. While children might be amused to get served by robotic Kiosks at McDonald, you would be left wondering — what happened to those cheerful, courteous young people who used to serve you till recently! The biggest and the most severe threat that developing nations face is ‘pre-mature de-industrialization’ because manufacturing companies would prefer automation and 3D-printing, etc rendering millions of workers jobless.

Universal Basic Income:

Now the challenge arises — how do we take care of the millions of workers who are losing jobs to automation? Fortunately, the solution partly lies within the problem itself. As discussed above, the huge profit accrued because of automation could be levied as tax to create a fund for newly projected idea — UBI. UBI is ‘a fixed amount, sufficient for subsistence, given by the state to all its citizens regardless of income or work status’. All the workers, rendered jobless due to automation, are ethically entitled to the profit that automation (robots) generates in their erstwhile workplaces. While the amount and periodicity of disbursement may vary from country to country, the main purpose is to allay the worries with respect to subsistence.

Idea of UBI is already finding great support from some big entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and Bill Gates, etc. Feasibility studies and projects have shown positive results. Projects in Alaska and Kenya have been successful. Current Indian government is also conducting feasibility studies of UBI as a tool to alleviate poverty.

Should the idea of UBI translate into global acceptance, it would indeed be a great source of solace to all those who would be collecting pink slips with trembling hands and envious glare towards the robots who had elbowed them out.

As global citizens, we have to make a choice if we want to let automation and UBI be clubbed as one package — complementary to each other. Maybe then, we would be able to extract the positive usefulness of both for the larger good of humanity.