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You Can’t Talk About Robots Without Talking About Basic Income

Basic income has been proven to work, and we’re going to need it when robots replace 47 percent of the workforce by 2033.
Image: University of Lincoln.

Conversations about basic income, a government-funded salary given to every citizen, used to take place in the dingy offices of extremist left-wing politicians, or in the campus dorm rooms of idealistic students determined to fix the problems of the previous generation. The conversation was about social responsibility. It wasn't an economic case, it was a moral one.

A sharp uptake in technology designed to automate jobs and replace human workers is bringing new voices to this old debate. Today's society could be disastrously affected by artificial intelligence and growing automation, and scientists and technologists are looking for ways to stop that damage before it happens. The eyes of the tech industry are turning towards basic income, and the entire conversation is changing.


The Rise of AI

The Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence conducts high-impact research on artificial intelligence. Their CEO, Oren Etzioni, believes AI could be the key to creating a true utopia - but that journey will come with challenges. "There will be very real disruption," says Etzioni. "Jobs will be taken away and those people need to be taken care of. People have floated the idea of universal basic income, of negative income tax, of training programs. We have an obligation to figure out how to help people cope with the rapidly changing nature of technology."

That changing nature is in large part the rise of artificial intelligence. We already know about the potential economic destabilization that will come from the automation of commercial trucks, which will remove 3 million jobs in the US, plus 6.8 million employed in other parts of the industry. Now consider the police, which brings in $6 billion US a year in revenue from speeding tickets—that's a significant number of lost jobs on police forces. Add to that the lawyers and insurance companies who handle automotive accidents, the mechanics who fix dents and bangs, the physiotherapists and massage therapists who specialize in automotive accidents, and driving schools, and suddenly the number of potential lost jobs is staggering. And that's just from automated cars.

Automation's Long Reach

Artificial intelligence will do more than just create driverless cars. Take, for instance, food production. A student researcher at MIT has created the BakeBot Robot, which uses a laser scanner and stereo camera to identify ingredients, and then simple robotics to manipulate them. Restaurants are already toying with the idea of reducing serving staff by having diners order and pay using apps. That order can then be relayed automatically to the kitchen, where BakeBot prepares the meal. Add delivery by drone, which is already technologically possible, and you have an entire restaurant that has eliminated human workers, all with technology which exists today. That technology remains unperfected, but only drive to adopt stands in the way.


Then there are the things we are on the cusp of accomplishing, such as the automation of medical services. Telemedicine and diagnostic artificial intelligence will drastically reduce non-emergency visits to the ER, which remain a problem that traditional methods have been unable to solve. Robotic surgery, or robot-assisted surgery, is a common tool that allows doctors to perform surgery with far greater precision and and control. Right now these machines require human operators, but the leap to robots performing on their own is one we are already preparing to make.

The Thinking Machine

The real turning point will be if, or when (and it increasingly seems like a question of when), machines become genuinely creative. We have long been able to automate physical tasks, but automating cognitive tasks is a much more difficult hurdle. Researchers argue the definition of artificial intelligence and whether it has been achieved, but everyone agrees that we aren't quite there in terms of a true general intelligence. They also agree we're getting close.

AlphaGo recently defeated Lee Sedol at the game of Go, an advance that, in 2015, was still predicted to be at least ten years away.The most exciting moment was a single move during the second match, which was so strange that one commentator said he thought it was a mistake. It wasn't a move any human would have thought to make, but Fan Hui, another Go champion, described it as "beautiful." While we tend to label creativity as creating art or telling jokes, thinking "outside the box" is also creative thinking. Coming at a problem sideways, rather than directly, is something computers have long had difficulty doing, and AlphaGo has cleared that hurdle.


Boston Consulting Group predicts that by 2025, up to a quarter of jobs will be replaced by either smart software or robots. Gartner, a technology research firm, ramps that estimate up and predicts that one third of all jobs will be eliminated by 2025, while University of Oxford researchers Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne say a grand total of 47 percent of US jobs will be automated by 2033. Worried that your job is on the chopping block? You're probably right.


The Question Basic Income Answers

So what exactly is basic income, and why is it being touted as the solution to automation woes?

There are two common terms (often used either interchangeably or incorrectly): basic income and minimum income. Basic income (sometimes incorrectly called a guaranteed minimum income) is an income paid by a political community to all its members on an individual basis, without a means test or work requirement. That means every single person, regardless of how much or how little they make, gets the same payout.

A minimum income is also paid on an individual basis, but benefit levels are affected by factors such as household income (earn more, lose benefits) or medical proficiency (disability payments), or can be paid out in set schedules (x amount for rent, x amount for food). Welfare is an example of a minimum income. In most countries, a hodgepodge of different government programs are tacked together to create the safety net we provide the poor; and that bad tack job leads to holes. A true minimum income would combine things like welfare and tax credits into one program.


If you're thinking that sounds a lot like socialism, you're right. Yet conservative intellectual Charles Murray proposed introducing an annual $10,000 basic income "grant." The Alaska Permanent Fund, which is funded by investments from state oil revenues, sends annual dividend checks to the state's residents in a form of supported income. And Milton Friedman, an economist often quoted by conservatives and Republicans, supported basic income.

That's because basic income promises to do the two things that will make make right-wingers jump onto the social services bandwagon: save money and reduce government. Right now most countries' social assistance programs are a mess of overlapping bureaus, organizations, and support systems. Having one set amount that every person in the country receives eliminates that snare of red tape entirely (and a lot of jobs, in the process).

Of course, not everyone is convinced. The greatest fear is that without a motivator to work, people will stop doing their jobs, especially minimum wage and unpleasant jobs. Long-term studies on the efficacy of the program are an important step towards implementation—so far there aren't many to choose from, but there are two important use-cases.

The "Mincome" experiment took place in the small town of Dauphin, Manitoba, from 1974 to 1979. Often referenced when referring to successful examples of basic income, it was actually a prime example of a minimum income. Between 1968 and 1980, five such experiments were conducted in North America, primarily to investigate the impact of basic income on the labour market. The Mincome study was unique because, while it also focused on the working poor, it did not eliminate the elderly or the disabled. This makes it a much better benchmark for how a real program would operate.


Each family or individual in Dauphin was eligible for a set monthly amount, which replaced any benefits they might have been receiving prior. Their mincome supplement was then reduced by fifty cents for every dollar they earned by working. Because Dauphin was an agricultural community, where incomes were heavily dependent on harvests, many residents did not know in advance whether they would get a mincome stipend. Only 1,000 residents ended up receiving them, and everyone knew the experiment was temporary (which some argue affects the results).

Mincome was a staggering success. The fear that people wouldn't work if they didn't have to proved unsubstantiated; working hours dropped only one percent for men, three percent for married women, and five percent for unmarried women. Mothers with newborns got to stay at home longer, teenagers were more likely to graduate, and hospital visits dropped eight percent. There was also a reduction in rates of psychiatric hospitalization, and in the number of mental illness-related consultations with health professionals.

Unfortunately there was a change in government, the program was abandoned, and the results were largely ignored. It wasn't until Evelyn Forget published an analysis of the results in 2011 that people began to take notice. Canada had done something incredible, and it was something that could be done again.

As far as scale, however, Mincome was relatively small. Dauphin is a small agricultural community, with a population of roughly 8,000. That's a very small sample size on which to judge a program that would need to span an entire country. And the only use-case for something so far-reaching has far less impressive results.


In 2010, Iran became the first country in the world to adopt a basic income. Intended to replace subsidies on petrol, fuel, and other supplies, each citizen is given roughly $40 US per month. Unfortunately, the basic income has cost the government more than it was spending on subsidies. One option to address the issue is to implement a minimum rather than basic income, with means tests to determine who will be eligible for the new program. Another suggestion has been that universal entitlement need not mean universal payment; if the better-off can be induced to forego their entitlement voluntarily, the problem would solve itself. The telling point, however, is that few voices are suggesting a return to the old system. While it may not yet be perfected, it seems that a minimum income strategy is there to stay.

Around the world, countries are listening to these examples, and starting their own experiments into basic income. The Canadian province of Ontario announced, as part of its 2016 budget, plans to embark on a basic income experiment. While the full scope of the project has yet to be announced, Canada has said its purpose is to establish whether a basic income could lead to overall social services savings. In Finland, a basic income experiment will begin in 2017, and span two years. This will be the most methodologically rigorous and comprehensive test of basic income to date, and proponents eagerly await the results. Meanwhile, Switzerland will hold a referendum on the topic in June of this year, and a charity called Give Directly has decided to take the onus out of the government's hands; it's giving guaranteed 10-year basic incomes to selected families in Kenya.

Tech Takes Charge

Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking are among 8,600 people who have signed an open letter about the potential dangers of AI. The letter describes the need for safeguards to ensure that AI is positive rather than neutral in respect to purpose, but it also calls for the maximization of the societal benefit of AI. In short, it calls for social responsibility.

People in the technology industry are taking responsibility for the innovations they're creating, with results that will fundamentally change our world. As Sam Altman of Y Combinator says, "50 years from now, I think it will seem ridiculous that we used fear of not being able to eat as a way to motivate people." Y Combinator has decided not to wait for the government, announcing proposals for a project manager to run an independent five-year basic income experiment. is one of the founders of Give Directly's Kenyan experiment, while Silicon Valley luminaries like Netscape creator Marc Andreessen and media giant Tim O'Reilly both support basic income. Andressen told NY Mag that the main argument against basic income was that people would stop working, but human nature defies that. "Human wants and needs are endless. We're never satisfied."

The question of whether or not humans will embrace automation is the deciding factor in whether or not to get on board with basic income. Because if it is taken as a guarantee that artificial intelligence will replace human workers, basic income may be the only path forward.