What do robots and basic income have in common?

The idea of a basic income, an amount of money paid by the state to all citizens regardless of other earnings, is a particularly interesting one in the context of the exponential speed at which technology is progressing, with robots increasingly able to take over tasks currently carried out by humans: in short, more jobs are being lost than are being created.

Technology, which always leads to increased productivity (see the law of accelerated returns as described by Ray Kurzweil in 1999) cannot be “uninvented”, despite what some people still insist on believing. When we see Chinese factories announcing the replacement of 90 percent of their workforce with robots, and where just a couple of hundred workers will carry out what is being called “supervision” but is in reality “servicing” of these machines, the adrenalin starts to flow: the fact is that it’s not so much the replacement of people by machines, but the constant evidence that these machines are not simply replacing us, they actually do our jobs better than we do.

For example, self-driving cars: Google’s data shows that these vehicles not only move about with great agility amid the seemingly unpredictable traffic of a major city, but that they do so better than humans and that the only accidents they were involved in were caused by clumsy bipeds. We simply do not have 360 degree night vision, our reflexes are slow, and we get tired, and that is without mentioning alcohol and drug consumption or road rage. The message is getting through: 27 percent of Americans say they would be in favor of banning or restricting humans from driving. And based on my daily experiences on Spanish roads, so would I.

A fascinating article in Venture Beat called “The robots are here, and you should be worried” outlines a few facts that we don’t seem to see eye to eye on: humans think lineally and we have problems in perceiving or imagining the exponential, and reaches the conclusion that we need a new system of running society, one that would take into account the fact that almost half of all jobs are going to disappear in one or two decades, and that we’re not just talking about routine tasks, or the dirty work here, but white collar employment.

The only way forward is a complete restructuring of society, and the creation of a genuinely new economy: a basic income that would allow us to live, but not on the basis of just sitting around doing nothing, rather one that would resolve our most basic needs and that would allow those who wanted a higher standard of living to work in areas that would generate extra income: part time work, entrepreneurial activities, or even the few traditional jobs that remains, tasks where human input provides added value.

Because, at bottom, we’re talking about a society in which the vast majority of jobs, from harvesting in the fields to serving food or transporting goods, will be carried out by robots of all kinds: versatile, hyperproductive, and infallible. In this context, basic income can be seen in two main ways: to avoid a revolution that would lead a shrinking middle class to try to obtain the same income as the ruling class; and to maintain the spending power of those that without basic income would be condemned to poverty.

We need to start thinking about this now: the idea of basic income, that of paying people because they are members of society, not on what they do or the value they generate, is unthinkable within the current system. The idea that we will not be defined by what we do is still very hard to get our heads round. Work and income still go together, which is why we find it so hard to imagine people working for no money, or for the common good, or to get out and meet people. But as new platforms like Amazon, Airbnb or Uber allow more of us to earn a small amount of money driving others around, or renting out an apartment to tourists, then it seems to me that this is the “life style” of the future.

No government has yet put basic income on its agenda. But what about imagining a world where most work is done by robots, and work is something we do not out of necessity but choice? And if we raise the base line to a level that provides a dignified standard of living? Is basic income paranoia, or the new reality? What jobs will we do when a machine is able to them better than we currently do? We had better start coming up with some answers to these questions, because the robots are coming… and they want our jobs.


(En español, aquí)

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