Improvements in technologies, such as robotics and artificial intelligence (AI), will undoubtedly put jobs at risk. As machines become more intelligent, dextrous and skilful, there will be few tasks that humans can do better than their robot counterparts.
what does it mean for humans?
Well, according to IPPR subsequent job losses will lead to greater inequality. Certain groups of workers could be outright unemployed, and without work, where does money come from? Current society demands the possession of money to survive, thus the looming automation revolution could be disastrous.
Universal Basic Income (UBI) provides a solution to this problem. A fixed amount of income, at a level sufficient for livelihood, provided by governments to all people regardless of work status or income.
So, what are the benefits?
Once humanity has intelligent algorithms that can outperform us at almost every level, where will the superfluous and redundant human workforce go? This may well be the most important economical and ethical question of our time.
This is not an entirely new question; since the industrial revolution people have feared mechanisation would cause mass unemployment. In reality, old professions became obsolete as new professions emerged. Humans could not compete against machines in terms of physical ability, but there were countless cognitive tasks that humans were always better than machines at. Hence the workforce moved from primary and secondary sectors such as agriculture and industry to tertiary sectors. Humans became bankers, engineers, and writers, and we always did a better job than the machines.
In 2019, this is no longer the case. Algorithms such as Google’s GoAlpha learnt 3000 years of human knowledge in 40 days, outsmarting the best humans, and AI can now generate ‘paintings’ that dupe the world’s best art critics. Literature, film, and music, are similarly witnessing humiliatingly intrusive algorithms that outperform our human aficionados. Where else can jobs migrate to when humans cannot compete on either a physical or cognitive level?
Kantian ethics argues we have a duty to make accommodations for these displaced workers. A cornerstone of this school of thought is the equity postulate; to treat others as equals, with equal concern and respect.
Consider Uber, which employs 3 million drivers. When a tireless AI algorithm replaces a taxi driver who must return home to sleep every night, millions of people will see their livelihood disappear in a flash. Meanwhile in Silicon Valley, as labour costs vanish overnight, the CEO of Uber will wake up vastly more wealthy. Who wants that?
With the inevitable march of technology eating away at job opportunities and the disparity of wealth increasing, Kantian ethics states that we have a duty as a humanity to share the fruits of automated labour.
Framing the issue with care ethics leads us to reason that we must maintain the needs of the individual. UBI would fulfil at the very least the foundation of Maslow’s hierarchy of human physiological needs; enabling people to feed, cloth and house themselves. In fact, a UBI experiment in Finland which saw 2000 people receive a no-strings-attached monthly payment, found no disincentivization to work plus a significant reduction in problems relating to health and stress, suggesting UBI fulfils not only the basic needs but also the higher, psychological needs of Maslow’s triangle.
Looks like we’ll be implementing UBI very soon then?
Introducing UBI to solve the ethical issues of automation goes against the ideas of utilitarianism. By guaranteeing an income for everyone, society would be giving up on the possibility of former blue-collar workers remaining employed, due to a disincentive to take up employment in white-collar roles.
The Executive Office of the President under the Obama administration produced a report concluding that instead, we should more directly address the structural unemployment issues raised by automation by fostering the skills, training, job search assistance, and other labour market institutions to make sure people can get into jobs.
The major goals of automation are to increase productivity and reduce costs of retraining staff however, if the cost is increased unemployment and reduced innovation, then the majority will not benefit. This is reinforced by the fact that a 2016 referendum, to date the first and only vote on a UBI system, was defeated by a majority of 76.9% in Switzerland.
UBI also fails to satisfy from a care ethical viewpoint. A countrywide system would require significant funding. Any savings from increased productivity and the elimination of other state welfare schemes will likely fall short, once tax revenues are adjusted for increased levels of unemployment. In the US, it was predicted that UBI would cost somewhere between $2-4 trillion per year, equating to a 50% increase in federal expenditure.
How would society be affected if funding was sourced through increased taxation? Increased unemployment coupled with higher taxation would place an increased burden upon the employed to support society and its services. A rift could form between those that remain in jobs and those ‘free riding’ on the UBI. Even if not funded directly by increased taxation, this could compromise existing financially stretched government priorities such as infrastructure and health services.
Individuals may also feel a duty to work, and receive a salary reflective of their efforts, in order to provide for themselves as well as contribute to GDP. Disconnecting the link between work done and money earned may damage this dutifulness.
Implementing UBI would be such a large, sudden economic change that it is hard to predict exactly how it would affect society. The government has a duty to keep the economy safe, especially during times of such uncertainty. Would it be responsible from a duty ethics perspective to introduce policies that would cause such seismic shifts in how society functions?
It is inevitable that automation will largely replace human jobs in the future. However, providing a Universal Basic Income is too much of an uncertainty to be viable. Instead, it is important for all stakeholders-governments, policymakers, regulators, businesses, academia and the people- to collaborate and create a meaningful partnership between technology and people.