Artificial intelligence might be the greatest factor influencing individual freedom and power since the industrial revolution. With all the talk about the “dangers of uncontrolled AI” there isn’t enough attention given to the dangers of controlled AI.
Universal basic income is slowly becoming one of the most talked about topics of the US 2020 election. DNC candidate Andrew Yang has made UBI one of his core policies in a response to the current trends we are seeing with the labour market and AI.
The argument for basic income has many points, but a reoccurring theme is how automation has made millions of people across the world unemployed. With the amount of manufacturing and labour jobs decreasing some have purposed that the best way to tackle mass unemployment is to introduce a monthly stipend to all citizens for basic necessities.
The idea of basic income is certainly not a new one, but neither is the radical idea of wealth distribution because of changes to industry. Before the industrial revolution in the west we had the feudal system, where land and resources were hoarded by wealthy landlords. The majority of the population were peasant workers who gave their labour in exchange for a pittance, with little to no means of moving up in social class.
With the industrial revolution a new system now known as capitalism was established. Instead of being forced to work under grueling conditions for landlords, workers could work for a wide variety of companies in the cities. Just like the previous feudal system though, many issues began to develop such as terrible working conditions, long hours and low wages.
Among these problems lurked another issue which was arguably much more significant. As technology became more advanced automation improved and many jobs became redundant. Skilled tradesmen found themselves no longer being needed in an industry that outpaced them.
Similarly to today many critics, such as Karl Marx, talked about radical change. Marx discussed how the workers should rise up to seize the means of production, in this case automation, so the balance of power could be restored and brought back to the people.
Although it would be ridiculous to compare believers in basic income to Marx, it is relevant to discuss the similarities. As the world around us becomes more advanced and complicated the shift in valued job skills will become a bigger issue. Careers with lots of open positions, such as software engineering, require a significant level of skill that the majority of the population doesn’t possess. Even simple minimal wage jobs such as service or administrative roles are becoming more complex and reliant on technical skills. The question to ask is at what point will the skills required in industry outpace the current labour force like it did in the industrial revolution?
So what is the problem with UBI? With the abundance of wealth at a time in history where even the poorest among us can purchase luxuries that didn’t exist 100 years ago, it seems logical that a redistribution could work. Proponents of UBI aren’t just far-left politicians anymore as CEOs such as Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos have all publicly talked about how they believe in it.
Right there, lies the problem.
It can get very idealistic thinking about a world of equality where resources are distributed but I want you to take a minute to picture how this would be implemented. The labour market has been largely eradicated due to automation and the majority of jobs lie in advanced fields, the primary employer of which being large tech companies. UBI has been introduced and in order to pay for the trillions necessary to maintain it, the majority of taxation comes from these large tech companies.
Without realising it we have redistributed the power to an even smaller group of people with the added effect of living in a society where striking no longer has any effect. Is it any wonder why the CEOs of the world’s largest companies have no problem with UBI and the leverage it affords them?
So what is the answer to this shift in the labour market to skills that are becoming more and more difficult? Many people point to education as the answer. Do we need to include more technical knowledge in the school curriculum to prepare future graduates for the job market?
Modern education as we know it has its origins in agriculture and manufacturing workers. The whole structure of the school, from homework to the seasons students spend in class, was developed to accommodate the skills required for the job market at the time. Although changes to curriculum and subjects have changed dramatically over time, the entire structure has remained the same with little ability to prepare students for the creativity and outside the box thinking needed in more modern career paths. The issue we face by simply adding more technical and in-demand coursework is that we will fall into the same trap 50 years from now when we no longer require these skills. To truly prepare young people for any demand in the job market we need to re-envision what education should be, from its coursework to its entire structure.
As AI is making more and more jobs redundant and we transition to a labour market that is becoming more complex by the day we need to discuss how to accommodate this change, because universal basic income just won’t cut it.