Artificial Intelligence, Automation and Universal Basic Income.

Many techno visionaries have proposed that a Universal Basic Income is essential to address the fact that Automation and Artificial Intelligence will likely replace most of the mainstream jobs in the future. Elon Musk is a vocal proponent of this as is Mark Zuckerberg, the latter seeing “universal basic income as a way to inspire more entrepreneurial creativity.” So what is Universal Basic Income? It is the concept that every single citizen should have the right to receive a no strings attached, unconditional, automatic regular sum. It has been available for 37 years in Alaska so it is no new concept.

Recent times have seen widespread dissatisfaction which has transcended borders. This malaise can be seen in the political upheavals across the globe from Brexit in the UK to Trump in the US. Could the seeds of discontent be the same? Andrew Yang, US democratic presidential candidate believes this to be so. He has stated that the reason for much of these political upheavals is due to financial fear and uncertainty. The current proletariat are facing significant uncertainty and job erosion. He points out that as many as 4 million manufacturing jobs have been lost in recent years in the US, many of which were lost in the swing states. The very states which were the foundation of Trumps electoral wins. These states firmly supported building walls to “protect” the US Citizen, whether literal or figurative trade “walls”. Could this be driven by the need to protect jobs? Most of these jobs didn’t go China or Mexico they simply disappeared due to automation & robotics.

The most common class of jobs- Admin and Clerical, Call Centre and Retail are also currently seeing extreme shrinkage due to pressures from automation and digitisation, Amazon is killing the high street as we know it. These pressures in the job market are creating uncertainty and financial stress for many voters who are in turn expressing their fears politically. Yang maintains that the object of these fears has been represented to be foreign competitors, when in actual fact the root cause of the fear, i.e. financial uncertainty is the end result of human beings’ activities in automation and AI. In actuality, the result of increasing automation will mean that the benefit of cheap labour overseas is reduced and as the best experience and skills on automation exist on home soil, the impetus to return manufacturing operations with automation is greater.

Technology jobs in the US only represent around 8% of all jobs, whilst returning manufacturing operations will present more job opportunities, these are highly skilled roles. Whilst it is possible that many of those who have lost their jobs through automation or digitisation can retrain for a technology job, in reality there is a limit to the success of this. Those displaced from Manufacturing, Admin and Clerical, Call Centre and Retail will need to find other similarly low skilled jobs.  As those listed are the most common low skilled jobs available it is unlikely that these jobs will be replaced. This brings into focus the necessity of a Universal Basic Income. While some protagonist will argue of the greater efficiency in providing support only those who are in need of support rather than to all, it is arguable that the monies provided to all will simply trickle through society as it will be spent and collected again for taxes. This trickle effect will provide the stimulus to local economies everywhere, creating a far fairer and even distribution of resources than spending large amounts on a multimillion-dollar infrastructure project, which will inevitably benefit select contractors and localised communities. Whether or not this will happen will depend on large corporations, politicians, lobbyists and voters combining forces to find a workable solution to help reduce the all time high suicide rates and drug abuse currently in the US. Yang’s research supports that UBI (universal basic income) will deliver positive results for society only time will tell if this hypothesis will be supported by empirical evidence in the next decade.