BUSINESS
01/29/2016 03:00 pm ET

These Tech Wizards Want To Pay People For Doing Absolutely Nothing

No job required.
imgur/mckain

Silicon Valley has helped hatch all sorts of disruptive new technologies, from robots that can make computer chips, to automated personal assistants, to cars that drive themselves. Now it wants to study what happens when you pay people for doing absolutely nothing.

It sounds crazy, sure. But one of Silicon Valley's most influential venture capitalists thinks the time has come to test the pros and cons of basic income, a controversial scheme under which people are provided with a guaranteed income sufficient to cover basic living expenses whether or not they work.

“I’m fairly confident that at some point in the future, as technology continues to eliminate traditional jobs and massive new wealth gets created, we’re going to see some version of this at a national scale,” Sam Altman, president of the Y Combinator firm, wrote Wednesday in a blog post on the company's website. "Do people sit around and play video games, or do they create new things? Are people happy and fulfilled? Do people, without the fear of not being able to eat, accomplish far more and benefit society far more?”

To answer those and other questions, YC is looking to hire a scientist to conduct a study. They'll give a random sample of people a guaranteed income every month, then see how they end up spending their time. The hope is most people will choose to keep working.

Think about it. If you didn't have to work, what would you do? Netflix on the couch sounds appealing, but in reality would get boring after a week or two. 

YC is likely funding this research because its founders have unique expertise on two things: first, just how rapidly technology and automation is progressing, and second, an up-close-and-personal view of how the rapid rise of technology is driving economic inequality

In Silicon Valley, "high paid engineers and executives are serviced by an increasingly impoverished underclass of precariously employed people with little security or benefits, so they have an up close view of this dynamic of growing inequality," Darian Meacham, a philosophy and ethics professor at the University of West England, Bristol, said in an email to The Huffington Post. "There is also of course the fear that social conflict could lead to government regulation of automation and a slowing of technologies coming to market." 

Giving the poor money is a good way to keep them from being destitute. The powerful might want to do that because it's good for the society they live in, but they also might want to do it to avoid a class revolt, since most of the jobs being replaced by machines are low and middle-class jobs, while the people at the top with the more highly skilled jobs continue to be unaffected.  

Basic income is a niche idea, but it is embraced across the political spectrum. Conservatives often see it as a way to simplify government by simplifying benefit programs and possibly increasing domestic productivity. On the left, people just generally see giving money to the poor as a good thing.

"No one has the right to come between a person and the resources they need to survive," Karl Widerquist, a basic income expert and political philosophy professor at Gerogetown's Qatar campus, told HuffPost.

But the question remains for YC's researcher to answer: Will people still want to work if they're given an unconditional income? 

What do you think of basic income? Cast your vote below. 

YC is accepting applications for a basic income researcher until Feb. 15.

CONVERSATIONS