There is an article in the July ’17 issue of Fortune Magazine extolling the virtues of a Universal Basic Income. The premise is that Artificial Intelligence, AI, will put millions of people out of work and so those people will need a basic income. That basic income will lead to more consumer spending and that demand will be met by the increased efficiency and productivity of robots. It speaks of experiments in different parts of the world where people are given money with no strings attached to see how it changes their lives, i.e. do they become more productive as the proponents of this idea claim or hope, or do they become lazy because they are getting free money? Aside from some anecdotal evidence, there is no real data to support this idea one way or the other.
What the article neglects, and so states as well, is where is this money coming from. Mark Zuckerberg promoted the idea in his speech to Harvard graduates this year. I wonder if he is willing to donate his billions to the cause? I haven’t seen any evidence of that yet. Or, while Bill Gates is a great philanthropist, is he going to be giving out free money just for being born? The National Debt keeps growing and they are talking about giving away even more. Just where is all this money coming from?
I think it’s a great idea. Who wouldn’t want to retire at 18.
I’ve read a number of articles lately extolling the virtues of AI but I wonder what will become of the human race as we become more and more dependent on machines. While I don’t see a machine takeover like in the movie Terminator where machines try to wipe out people, I think we are losing some of our humanity as we let machines do the thinking for us. Could it be that we will atrophy into helpless blobs or even as science fiction has postulated, brains in bottles? Or as Zager and Evans sang in the song “In The Year 2525”: “In the year 5555 Your arms hangin’ limp at your sides, Your legs got nothin’ to do, Some machines’ doin’ that for you. I think the proponents of this Basic Income idea, all of which seem to be Tech Billionaires, have this idea of a Utopia where we all sit around all day looking at our phones and when we get bored we go buy a new phone.
The problem is that humankind needs to struggle. We need adversity to satisfy the human trait of conquering something. Without that drive to succeed we become little more than biological units just staying alive like any other animal, or ameba for that matter. It’s a Yin/Yang sort of thing. One cannot know good without experiencing evil and one cannot know pleasure without experiencing pain. If we lose the struggle to survive we lose the desire to better ourselves and we start to devolve.
And then there is the possibility that AI will advance to the point it reaches consciousness. If everyone is receiving a Universal Basic Income, what they are proposing is the development of a slave workforce. We all become like the stereo typical Southern Plantation owner sitting on the Veranda sipping our Mint Julip and directing our robots in what to do. When do the robots stop being robots and become conscious slaves? The majority of people extolling UBI are the same who denigrate our past for accepting slavery. Will the future look like the movie Blade Runner or will it look more like the movie Bicentennial Man? Both of which are about robots (or constructed people) seeking freedom.
The bottom line is I think we have taken the wrong fork in the road. We have become so dependent on our phones and tablets that we are missing the big picture of what being human is all about. As technology advances creativity is being concentrated in small pockets while the masses develop a service economy where the majority of people are not involved in building but just serving other people and those jobs will be the first to go to the machines. We see some of this already with the cry for a $15 minimum wage taking jobs and giving it to self serve kiosks. Perhaps the threat of socialism with an oligarchy ruling over the equally poor will in fact be an oligarchy of creators ruling over lethargic non-thinking Eloy. Of course the argument is that people will become more productive if they have more time to be so and don’t have to worry about failure. I surmise that these experimental pockets where UBI is being tried are more similar to Gilbreth’s Hawthorne experiment than what will actually occur in reality. It will be impossible to conduct such experiments in isolation from the rest of the world and would have to be done through several generations to measure the true effect. That just won’t be possible. I believe what we need is a sort of Back to the Land approach. Back in the ‘70s the Hippy movement spawned a movement of many people leaving the urban environment and returning to simpler ways of agriculture. We see much of that today with people wanting to live Off the Grid. We don’t need an anti-technology movement, but we need to be smarter with technology. We need to recognize that there is a life outside of our phones. We need to stop creating technology for technology’s sake. Just because something is new doesn’t make it better. Raise our children in an environment where they experience failure, struggle to succeed, and yes, even pain. Recognize that there is more to life than having the latest gadget. And, proceed cautiously with AI and not go overboard looking for Utopia. Shangri-La was not all it seemed.