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Is Universal Basic Income Inevitable?

Technology can create new jobs for the unskilled.

Bill Gates and Elon Musk have contended that the artificial intelligence (A.I.) revolution and automatization of work will put large swaths of the population out of work. They argue that solving this social problem requires universal basic income. Is this true, or is there another solution?

For decades, A.I. has promised to make a better world, one in which machines replace humans for menial jobs. Finally, we are entering an era where some of these predictions are coming to fruition. For years, pattern recognition software has been used to construct 3D maps from satellite images automatically. Google uses A.I. to create a self-driving car that maps out streets and roads all over the world. Robot lawnmowers and vacuum cleaners have made a dent in the home market. A.I. garbage separation machines are now, to a much better extent, able to sort municipal solid waste in a useful manner. Face recognition software has allowed governments to automatize surveillance, and parking companies use such software to recognize license plate numbers and bill customers automatically.

Too Smart?

Most would agree that this development is beneficial, but what if the machines become so smart that the unskilled human labor is unable to compete? “Learn to code” was the progressive mantra when globalism threatened low-skilled workers. Once competition reached journalists, the phrase was promptly deemed hate speech.

Globalism and automatization have in common that both compete with low-skilled labor. Many people are now waking up to the problem that learning to code is not so easy.

There is a significant proportion of the population that will realistically never be able to complete college. One in four even struggles to finish high school. For these, practical jobs may be the only alternative. If these jobs disappear due to automatization, permanent unemployment awaits.

The much-lauded Elon Musk and Bill Gates have put their particular brand of creativity to work and come up with a solution: give up. Pay people to do nothing. Is that the best they can do? Surely such intelligent people can come up with a way to utilize the talents of most human beings.

Techno-Cows

There is ample evidence that this is achievable. Even the most unskilled human is infinitely smarter than a cow, and companies have been able to create technology that cows can use to increase their productivity. Ingenious people have created milking booths. All the farmer needs to do is to train the cows that when they feel the urge to be milked, they walk into the booth, stand still, and let the machines do the rest. Inside, the cow is first automatically washed. Then A.I. is used to place the suction cups on the udders. And voila! The cow is milking itself. If cows can master technology, surely low-skilled human labor can do much better.

An Attitude Problem?

The fact that entrepreneurs can envision A.I. solutions for dumb animals such as cows but not for humans suggests that the problem is one of attitude. Universal basic income is to declare eternal hopelessness for a significant portion of the human population. It has built into it the hidden premise that many humans are useless – mere waste that needs to be fed and entertained while the machines handle the real work.

However, we see all around us the seeds of productivity-enhancing solutions for the low-skilled. Consider the new automats at McDonald’s where you can order your food on a touch screen rather than telling a human behind the counter to punch in your order. On the surface, it seems that a job has been eliminated, but the customers – even unskilled ones – are still doing the job of punching in the order.

Although the customer is not hired by McDonald’s, by doing part of the labor, the result is cheaper food.

It may seem like a trivial example, but it illustrates how machines can be used to increase the productivity of everyone. If a creative genius like Elon Musk had an equal desire to create work tools for the unskilled as he has for going to Mars, he probably wouldn’t be proposing universal basic income.

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