Should robots pay us not to work? — Relax our our kids will decide.

Whether or not paying every American $1,000 per month for doing nothing is a good idea the debate over a Universal Basic Income (UBI) will pick up steam in the future .

Is it “efficient” for society when a truck driver sits inside a rabbit hutch on wheels and guides a container of TV’s from New York to LA. Should we let a robot do this instead? Who knows. Ask the the truck driver if he/she would rather do something more appetizing with 48 hours. I’m sure that you, me and the minds of economists, politicians and Silicon Valley money people will have a feisty time deciding on the social and financial fallout of a UBI. But is it really our problem to solve? Why not let our kids make the call on this one?

Let’s take a time machine back to the 1930’s. We’re in the grips of economic and social depression and John Maynard Keynes’ tells us about his upbeat view of the world:

“My purpose is not to examine the present or the near future, but to disembarrass myself of short views and take wings into the future. What can we reasonably expect the level of our economic life to be a hundred years hence? What are the economic possibilities for our grandchildren?”

He persuades you that “in the long run that mankind is solving its economic problem” and is unfailingly creating a better world for coming generations. Wealth created now pays-forward to our grandchildren in the form of better social services, less work and more leisure time. Maynard rounds it off telling you how technology will allow you to get down to a 15 hour work week by 2030.

If Keynes’ soothsaying was (is) true what do we do with all the extra time we have on our hands? And who foots the bill for all this added down time we’re gifted?

Now on to robots. The robot’s they’re scary, right?. They’ll start taking over everything we should be doing — they’ll demean our existence and we’ll be superfluous to requirements. It will be their world and we’ll just be guests.

Such talk is scare mongering and serves no purpose. Can’t we just agree that robot automation is just technology plain and simple. It’s technology’s current flavor but that is all it is, no more no less, it’s just technology. Bringing robots center stage is no difference to the invention of money, the written word, the printing press, manned flight, the phone and the Internet. When we start projecting ourselves too far in the future we get scared with visions of dystopia — I don’t want my kids to have children and enter a world like that. It’s all bad and evil we can’t let it happen. I’m sure medieval man would have done the same with visions of T-Mobile.

Now we’ve agreed robot’s don’t have an evil agenda what of life’s most scare commodity, time. What if we trade in our ailing 4o hour week for a brand new 10-hour week, can we still be productive to society? We will be become useless blobs with no drive or social responsibility. Back to Maynard …

Thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem-how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well…Yet there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy.
— Keynes

So how far off was Keynes? Not far as it turns out. Since the 30’s we’ve managed to adapt pretty well to the way technology has revolutionized our economy and standard of living. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news but we are already working less and less. The average German work week currently stand’s at 26 hours and a 6 hour work week in Sweden is not uncommon (US you’re at 34 hours — got some work to do there). And all this happens while the global standard of living is at it’s peak and we’re enjoying the longest period of sustained peace in modern times (even factoring in the evils of modern terrorism).

Assuming we can get comfortable with not working as much (sounds oxymoronic) the question becomes how to fund it. The Universal Basic Income is one suggestion on the table. If we can find a viable way to pay people not to work then the puzzle is complete (and bravo for us). The thought of this maybe all too much for some — who wants society morphing into some kind of Brave New World? Reality check. Mankind has been around for 200,000 years and we’ve done pretty well avoiding any type of utopia or dystopia (not for want of trying). These outcomes are not a true reality, it’s not the way life plays out. Things sort themselves and we evolve.

In 1964 Arthur C Clarke was raising the collective fur on the back of society’s nay sayers with predictions of computers and a networked world (which you are now using to read this).

The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic — Arthur C Clarke, 1964

…and ten years later in 1974 he gets even more specific

So, let’s fix what needs fixing and stop trying to imagine the future in the shoes of our children and getting freaked out.

A good starting point? Why not focus on what we can control? For starters let’s change the way we educate our children so it’s give them a better chance to thrive in tomorrow’s world — stop requiring them to retain meaningless information; stop measuring their success on how well they regurgitate facts. Make education about how to solve problems; how to lead; how to build community and we’ll send our children forward into that scary future equipped just fine. They’ll work out how to live with the robots (and work less).