THE BLOG
10/31/2016 02:38 pm ET Updated Oct 29, 2017

Universal Basic Income: Side Effect of the Tech Revolution?

One of the biggest challenges of the digital revolution lays in its ability to handle 'creative destruction', namely the losses of jobs created by technical progress. In theory, workers made redundant should be retrained and soon occupy higher skills/higher pay positions, with society better off as a whole.

This year's presidential election has been widely marked by the waive of discontent which gave wings to Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Internationally, the same grievances have fueled populists from Asia to Europe.

Some of the anger has roots in the large job losses experienced by parts of the population, and mainly attributed to the export of manufacturing work overseas, and the replacement of humans by technology. Indeed, tech has eliminated jobs, for better or worse -time will tell. Slowly, all is done online, bank checks are deposited through apps, and the cash register becomes cashier-free.

This will continue; robots will keep replacing humans. However, what can be controlled is the way this process is handled.

Nowadays, an artificial intelligence software can write a movie script and bypass humans to earn a prize for it. Or can weigh legal arguments and data and reach the same verdict as human judges.

Machines are making human efforts inefficient and uncompetitive, thereby creating 'technological unemployment'. The challenge is on par with those created by the industrial revolution, and the pace is faster.

As progress marches on, human labor could become irrelevant as robots take over all or most of the work in society. Workers laid off by the tech wave might not find a place to retrain and reenter the workforce, as tech has sharply reduced the overall need for workers. If this happens, then the creative destruction model breaks as wealth in society keeps rising, but this time without the appearance new employment in new industries.

We are likely to enter an economic era with far fewer jobs than before. A 2013 Oxford study highlighted that 47% of U.S. jobs could be performed by machines within 10 to 20 years.

Hence the need to appease unhappiness, discontent and the potential for civil unrest -all of these already high currently. Is this the stage at which the idea of universal basic income (UBI) makes sense?

The question deserves to be raised. The UBI is essentially a system in which the government provides everyone with a money stipend on a monthly basis, regardless of income, and with no restrictions on how to use it.

This matter has already entered international debates, and Switzerland earlier on this year held a referendum about it, with 23% of voters in favor of a plan to embrace UBI with stipends of $2,555 per month. The idea has entered public debate in Finland, France, the U.K., and slowly the U.S. (with many backers in Silicon Valley, such as Marc Andreessen).

Indeed, of great concern is the effect of such a policy on society: with such a disincentive to work, does it create laziness? And would it also not lead to massive immigration, along with inflation?

On the contrary, wouldn't freeing everyone of the worries about basic survival needs (food and shelter at least), lead to a better allocation of human capital within our society? In other words, it could be thought that allowing everyone to pursue what they really want to do will lead each to maximize its contribution to his or her environment. In this scenario, entrepreneurs would start earlier, last longer, and therefore maximize chances of success.

There are liberal and conservative arguments for both sides. But it is dawning upon us that we might need to organize for a future without work, or at least with less of it. We will have to balance ever faster paced wealth creation with keeping society peaceful. In this case, the UBI might be a necessary form of socialism that protects capitalism.