In a July 2017 Fortune magazine article titled “Why Free Money Could Be The Future Of Work” by Clay Dillow and Brooks Rainwater, the authors bring attention to the practice and concept of universal basic income (UBI). A short description of UBI, sometimes referred to alternately as unconditional basic income, is that some entity, be it a company, collective of companies, or the government, will provide individuals with a regular monthly income of some amount yet to be determined for no work in return.
Conceptually, leaders in the tech field believe artificial intelligence (AI) and the automation that comes with it will leave a massive chunk of the American population unemployed. The article starts off asking “imagine for a moment having $1,500 extra in your bank account at the end of the month - $1,500 more than you’ve actually earned.” What would you do with it? Note the word ‘extra’ as opposed to ‘only’, which is the concept that UBI implies. Hold this thought and question for the last part of the article.
EconoMonitor’s Ed Dolan has a different, or a somewhat more accurate picture of what UBI may be. He addresses the topic from the point of view that UBI could be another form of unemployment insurance, but tries to get at the root of which is better: unemployment insurance, UBI, a combination of the two, and how much compensation is fair. He also brings welfare into the picture.
Facebook barrister Mark Zuckerberg is on board with the UBI concept. He says, “We should explore ideas like universal basic income to make sure that everyone has a cushion to try new ideas.” That’s an interesting observation when you consider that through history some of the greatest discoveries and inventions were the work of people with minimum to bare resources.
The Fortune article differs from Ed Dolan’s in that it alludes to the concept that UBI could actually create jobs. Let’s also address that at the end. First we’ll take a look at the root cause of a need for either UBI or unemployment insurance, or welfare: Artificial Intelligence (AI)
According to techopedia, artificial intelligence (AI) is defined as “an area of computer science emphasizing the creation of intelligent machines that work and react like humans.” Computer systems and machines engaged in AI applications rely on several technologies that include speech recognition, machine learning and planning, problem solving, robotics, and cognition for initial observation of unique events and situations.
If they are to be effective, sophisticated AI designs require humans from a number of disciplines. These include electronics and mechanical engineers, embedded systems designers, software developers, sensor designers, test/QC technicians, and, in those cases where human qualities need some precise tweaking, a behavioral psychiatrist or two may be enlisted. In the case of speech recognition, linguists capable of speaking various languages may also be on call.
One example of a complex AI design that would require precise human qualities is a robot used for babysitting young children. For years in the past, parents relied on the radio and then television for this task. Today they use the Internet and smartphones. But robotic baby sitters are definitely on the horizon and they need to be safe, sympathetic, and empathetic on a human level.
On the other end of the wide AI spectrum, a basic AI system for a repetitive task would not require a large or sophisticated design team. For example, an assembly line worker in a boutique microbrewery whose job is repetitive and involves some basic yet specialized visual/tactile skills. The worker inserts corks into full beer bottles as they pass on an assembly line and locks them down with a bar that’s pre-installed on the bottles. The worker’s daily routine involves three steps:
- Select a box containing 200 corks.
- Inspect the corks to make sure none are deformed or wet.
- Assume position on the line and gently tap a cork into each bottle with a rubber hammer and lock it down as the bottle passes.
The worker performs this routine once a day over a seven-hour period. On days requiring overtime, the routine is repeated twice. Could you imagine performing these tasks incessantly; five days a week for say forty years?
Designing a small mobile system for this task should be fairly easy. It would involve some optics for cork inspection, some robotics for the carrying of corks, inserting them, and a robotic hand to do the locking. The hand may not even require the hammer. A pneumatic pump of sorts could be on the end of a mechanical arm for powering the cork into the bottle. Two arms could be installed to do two bottles at a time.
Software would be employed for the machine to be able to detect defective corks, send alarms when one or more are found, and alerting a worker to bring more corks. The system is fairly simple, inexpensive, and would accommodate future customization. The added benefits would initially be higher productivity with fewer errors, you won’t have a human that goes insane after years of cork pounding, and you would have a mechanical worker that’s doesn’t get insulted when the manager berates it inappropriately at a team meeting.
For our purposes now, let’s define AI as machines and systems that can work like humans at a variety of tasks. Eventually, there will be pretty much nothing a machine cannot do short of walk on water.
How Is AI Viewed?
Artificial intelligence, particularly how it pertains to automation has been predicted, insinuated, under analyzed, over analyzed, dismissed in giga-word articles, and satirized in all forms of media, even cartoons, since at least the 1920s. And it goes back even further. During mediaeval times, the catapult put a lot of archers out of work. How AI is viewed by the tech and consumer communities is polarized with very little middle ground.
If you read the tech publications and attend the tradeshows, like sensorsmag.com and Sensors Expo, respectively, you will get a no-less-than glorious picture of how AI will make life supremely better for all. You will hear keynotes, observe demoes in sessions, and visit exhibitors; all of whom and which will promote the idea that AI will make all our futures beautiful. All our health and economic problems will be solved and forgotten. We can all be happy and productive because all of our menial tasks and more will be performed by machines.
Another concept promoted by AI advocates is that we will all have more free time for personal development, friends, family, etc. This reminds me of a high-school career counselor who advised, “study computers in college, you’ll be working a three-day week.”
On the other side, AI opponents claim the technology will eliminate jobs, leaving behind a large population of unemployable people. They will point out that not everyone will have the aptitude or desire for whatever jobs will be available in 10 or 20 years. Not everyone has the passion to work a 168-hour week, nor do they care to be engaged 24/7 with a constant stream of flotsam media coming from their laptops, tablets, and smartphones.
Will this portion of the population adapt and develop said passion for technology? It reminds of another question. “If you were ill and needed to see a doctor, would you prefer a doctor who is motivated by money or one who has a passion for medicine?”
Then, we have a small sample of the population that’s sitting on the fence regarding AI. Some of these folks may say it’s too soon to tell if the technology will be good or disastrous. Some don’t know enough about it and then there are a number who still don’t believe we are heading for a highly automated world.
The purpose here is not to change anyone’s opinion or philosophy, there’ not enough time in a lifetime to do so. However, if I were to place a bet, a very small one due to economic restrictions, I would agree that:
- AI is coming to fruition in the very near future.
- AI will eliminate a lot of jobs.
- AI will be glorious for some people and not for some others.
The UBI Solution
The Fortune Magazine article asks, what would you do if you had $1,500.00 extra each month, free, no work necessary? The answer depends on your situation, of which there are several.
You freshly out of college, living at home with the parents, unemployed, and prospects of employment are slim because you majored in what you are good at and have a passion for. You could use the money to get a master’s degree in something of value that has the potential of getting you a job, start some kind of business based on what you can actually do, or start drinking heavily. After all, the concept is one can do whatever one wants with UBI money
You had a great job, but you got laid off. If you had a great job, chances are you had a salary that afforded you a somewhat comfortable lifestyle. However, no matter where you live in the US, $1,500 a month does not go very far. For example, in New York, unemployment comes to $480 per week, which is roughly $1,920 a month. That’s slightly better than the $1,500 UBI. Maybe combined one could eek by until another job comes along. But remember, you have to pay tax on unemployment insurance, and it has not been determined if UBI requires the same.
You have a great job and you have a sum of money you’ve been saving to start a business involving what you are truly passionate about. That UBI could help start that business, and/or help through the rough days of startup.
That’s just the three most common situations, there are many others, such as those involving persons with disabilities, special needs people, veterans, etc. Of course there is the situation where, even if this was 50 years ago, there are some samples of the population that, for whatever reasons, remain or refuse to be employable.
Is UBI A Solution Or A Stagnation Enabler?
Whenever there’s a discussion of some concept or program for providing money to those who fall victim to an economic accident, philosophies fly, usually bipolar like attitudes on AI. Some say no, put them back to work before they get lazy, while the others say give them more and then some. Either way is not a desirable solution.
All through history, the shape and function of society’s workforce has been in a constant state of change. From the invention of the wheel, through the harnessing of electrical power, jobs have been either changed or eliminated. When the car was invented, I’m sure saddle and horse-drawn buggy makers took a bit of a hit? Do you love typewriters? Would you consider going into business making them today? And expect huge profits?
On one level, UBI is a good idea for those just starting out. Having a reliable income that one could use for further education, invest, or use to start a business is utopian indeed, if that’s what the money is used for. Also, the UBI amount has to be adjusted to be enough to accomplish these things as well cover the inevitable taxes.
On another level, UBI could keep people living in their parents’ homes and basements much longer. If that UBI income is steady and permanent, just hang in there until you inherit the house. Hopefully, mom and pop paid the mortgage.
Once again, time will tell how AI affects us all. Right now, companies are figuring out how the technology will benefit them. Naturally, it can make companies more profitable by eliminating human resources. But don’t lose sight of the fact that those human resources are also the consumers of products. The companies should hope the UBI figure is high enough so those unemployed UBI recipients can buy some of their products. You’ll just have to watch and listen. ~MD.
About the Author
Mat Dirjish is the Executive Editor of Sensors magazine. Before coming on board, he covered the test and measurement and embedded systems market for Electronic Products Magazine, after which he spent thirteen years covering the electronic components market for EE Product News and Electronic Design magazines. He also has an extensive background in high-end audio/video design, modification, servicing, and installation.