How Automation and Artificial Intelligence are Increasing the Popularity of a Universal Basic Income

I’ve always viewed the fields of technology and economics as critically important but very distinct. But when you look ahead to how technology will shape the job opportunities available to us in the future, the overlap between these topics becomes clear.

Hollywood films and news headlines dating back decades warn about how the robots and machines will replace us all and result in a world controlled by computers.

While I see this dystopian view of the future as largely exaggerated, the idea that technology will increasingly affect what economic opportunities we have is real.

Artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics and all forms of automation are shifting how we work and what jobs could/should be done by machines versus humans. The question that eventually follows is, what if the machines can do most/all of our jobs?

Enter the concept of universal basic income, or UBI.

If you’ve never heard of UBI, think about it simply as a guaranteed income amount for all citizens, whether they chose to work or not.

This idea isn’t new and has been discussed at length for decades, including in publications like The Economist, Harvard Business Review and countless other business and economic journals. It was discussed at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland earlier this year, where many of the world’s wealthiest and most influential minds meet.

Lately, the conversation has traveled from the quiet rooms of economic conferences to the forefront of Silicon Valley and to the American heartland.

Tesla and PayPal founder Elon Musk recently stated that automation and technological advancements will make UBI necessary. Ebay’s founder is actually testing the concept of UBI through a firm he launched in Kenya.

Not sure how this is relevant to everyday people like you and I?

Let’s take an example of some of the most common jobs in the United States: retail cashiers, commercial truck drivers and customer service representatives. Each of these roles have a long-standing history in our country and exemplify a job that most of us have direct experience with, or can relate to.

Nearly five million Americans work in a retail sales role, according to labor statistics reports. Advancements in mobile and payment technology make cashiers less-and-less necessary for most retail stores. Furthermore, self-checkout options are increasingly popular when compared to long lines.

Some large e-commerce companies are even experimenting with a process where you don’t even have to checkout or use a register. You simply leave the store without actively paying and your account is automatically billed based on products you took off the shelves. I wrote about this several months ago,and it appears the idea is gaining traction. This type of process improvement isn’t slowing down and today’s retail workers will be affected.

If we consider the effect on commercial truck drivers, it’s becoming glaringly clear how machine learning and radar technology will make self-driving trucks a reality, very soon. Many auto manufacturers have already jumped into this technology, and the race will likely continue to heat up. This will undoubtedly impact the more than one and a half million truck drivers in America.

Finally, for jobs like phone-based customer service representatives, voice recognition and natural language processing (NLP) technologies are automating much of the processes that were previously required to be performed by humans. To preview how much this will change, compare how much human interaction you had when calling a 1-800 number ten years ago versus today.

When you add in the growth of software-based chatbots, the scope of this transition away from humans is magnified. Machines can now recognize what you are asking and saying, then provide an appropriate response.

What would the specifics of the UBI strategy look like? That’s less clear.

What is clear is that a growing category of thought leaders see value in providing citizens with a standard dollar amount of income each month or year. Would $40,000 per year be enough, or would you need $80,000 to vote for the idea? Because UBI would guarantee some income, you could ultimately take on additional work to earn more to improve your quality of living.

Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and currently the world’s wealthiest man, took the UBI discussion a step further when he suggested that we should tax any robots that replace humans in the workplace.

It appears that much of UBI’s popularity stems from the perspective that if people didn’t have to go to work everyday simply to pay for housing or food, they would be able to do more tasks that they truly enjoy that could have a greater impact on themselves or the community.

So the next time you are involved in a conversation about jobs and technology, consider how you would feel about a proposed basic income system that would enable you to have more free time to contribute to society in new and potentially more meaningful ways.

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