The New York Times had an interesting story today that looked at one possible consequence of a future filled with robots replacing human workers – U.B.I., or Universal Basic Income.
The basic premise goes like this – as people are phased out of jobs, why not just give everyone a paycheck? Imagine the government sending each adult about $1,000 a month (or whatever the right number might be), about enough to cover housing, food, health care and other basic needs for many Americans. U.B.I. would be aimed at easing the dislocation caused by technological progress, but it would also be bigger than that.
Supporters argue machine intelligence will produce so much economic surplus that we could collectively afford to liberate much of humanity from both labor and suffering. Others see this as an opportunity to provide people the freedom to become artists, scholars, entrepreneurs or otherwise engage their passions in a society no longer centered on the drudgery of daily labor.
Right now there are more questions than answers about U.B.I.:
- how much would U.B.I. cost the country, and can we afford it
- what are people’s motivation and purpose in a “postwork” age
- when you give everyone free money, what do people do with their time (do they goof off, pursue more meaningful pursuits, become more entrepreneurial)
- how would U.B.I. affect economic inequality
- how would it alter people’s psychology and mood
- do we, as a species, need to be employed to feel fulfilled, or is that merely a legacy of postindustrial capitalism
- does everyone get U.B.I (i.e., is “universal” a necessary part of the idea) or just those whose job has been replaced by technology
- is everyone paid the same, or is the U.B.I somehow relative to what a person is/was earning
- is U.B.I. even the best use of this “economic surplus” that gets created because of the expected golden age of robotics, or could that surplus be used to tackle issues related to world hunger or to fund universal health care
The good news is that that there are people working on the answers to such questions.
There’s no doubt that technology has already had a significant impact on the workplace, and I believe such changes will become even more dramatic in the future. The idea of job security has become a myth, as has the idea that certain jobs could never be done by a robot/artificial intelligence.
But there is a certain appeal to being freed from a job that is viewed simply as a paycheck, and not as something that brings fulfillment.
Albert Wenger, a venture capitalist at Union Square Ventures, states, “I think it’s a bad use of a human to spend 20 years of their life driving a truck back and forth across the United States,” Mr. Wenger said. “That’s not what we aspire to do as humans — it’s a bad use of a human brain — and automation and basic income is a development that will free us to do lots of incredible things that are more aligned with what it means to be human.”
At this point, U.B.I is in what might be called the basic research phase; there’s still a lot of work to be done before it ever becomes a reality.
As a parent and as a business school teacher, my struggle with the changes that are happening is with what should I be telling my sons and my students; how do I best prepare someone for a future that may look very different from what it looks like right now? How can you tell someone to pursue a career that may not exist in 5-10 years? I’ve always grown up around the idea of a “job” or “career”, something that gives you something to do with your time, and hopefully provide some meaning. But what if “jobs” and “careers” become relics of the past; how do you teach someone to fill their days?
These questions, like the ones noted above, are difficult, soul-searching types of questions. I don’t have any answers now, but it made me realize that Bob Dylan’s words from 1964 are still relevant, more than 50 years later.