Robots and penniless humans: Basic Income has become an imperative

By Rob Rainer

We are at the dawn of a new era of technology without parallel in history. Along with it, concern is rising that automation of all kinds, being developed at exponential rates, will displace labour on an unprecedented scale.

For example, a 2013 study out of Oxford University predicted that automation will cause 47 percent of the jobs in the U.S. to disappear within 20 years. We are talking about not only the work that’s been called “the dull, dirty, and dangerous,” which some believe should be handled by robots. Rather, we are talking about work of creative skill too, or requiring significant analytical power.

Our machines can now write prose, with a prediction that by 2030, 90 percent of journalistic writing will be done by computers. Our machines can compose music. They can even do things as delicate as administering anaesthesia or performing unassisted surgery. 

As writes Martin Ford, author of the 2015 book Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future: “The machines are coming for the high-wage, high-skill jobs as well....Automation is blind to the colour of your collar.”

Technological unemployment is not just about the elimination of jobs completely, but also about the elimination of tasks within jobs that might yet remain, giving rise to the question of what if anything will replace that task time. A report published last November by the McKinsey Global Institute found that 45 percent of 2000 distinct types of work activities, across 800 occupations, “could be automated, affecting workers in a wide variety of roles. For example, up to 20 percent of the activities of a chief executive could be automated, such as analyzing operations data and reviewing status reports.

For a short and sobering look at technological unemployment, watch the acclaimed video Humans Need Not Apply, available on YouTube. Suffice it to say: should vast job loss due to automation come to pass, the conversations being had today about Basic Income may be of a much different flavour. And indeed, one is seeing some technology experts recommending Basic Income as public policy, as does Martin Ford in his book.

Basic Income involves a regular, reliable distribution of money from government to people to help ensure total income sufficient to meet common, basic needs. The distribution is made without regard for whether recipients have paid labour or not, though total income can be factored as to whether a person receives Basic Income.

One analyst has gone as far to say that “all robot labour should be nationalized and put in the public sector, and all citizens should receive a basic stipend from it. Then, if robots make an automobile, the profits will not go solely to a corporation that owns the robots, but rather to all the citizens. It wouldn’t be practical anyway for the robots to be making things for unemployed, penniless humans.”

In a world in which in which the richest one percent have wealth greater than the remaining 99 percent, we can never accept that Basic Income is an unaffordable proposition. Indeed, as the great economist John Kenneth Galbraith said: “A rich country…must give everybody the assurance of a basic income. This can be afforded and would be a major source of social tranquility....Let us always keep in mind that nothing so denies liberty as a total absence of money.”

— Rob Rainer is an advocate living in the Ottawa area, who volunteers his time with the Basic Income Canada Network.