Redefining work as a measure of our identity in the world

Roderick Benns recently interviewed Michael Vertolli, a PhD student at Carleton University who studies artificial intelligence in relation to human cognition. He believes that basic income is one of the only ways to move forward in a future of large-scale automation.

Benns: What is the connection between automation and basic income? Why should we be considering this social policy change based on automation trends — hasn’t this always been predicted and yet we still seem to have jobs?

Vertolli: The short answer is that the belief that “we still seem to have jobs” is a misleading perception held by people whose jobs have yet to get significantly affected. This means it is held by people in the middle-class range with medium-difficulty jobs that require one to think. The problem is systems like AlphaGo, Google’s Artificial Intelligence that just beat the world champion at Go, demonstrate that even these tasks can now be learned by sufficiently powerful AIs.

To put it even more bluntly, I could probably replace most of the staff in the head office of most companies with a single tech or small team. And, I could do that using simple automation in most cases. More complex cases require more complex techniques, but we now have those. This would have a significant initial cost, and I expect that is one of the major contemporary deterrents. However, companies like Google and McDonald’s don’t have this problem and they set market trends.

Unless everyone except highly specialized experts and CEOs (and most CEOs are probably replaceable with automation) wants to be unemployed, they best start thinking of solutions as soon as possible. Basic income is one obvious option that already has evidence in its favour.

Benns: Should we be thinking about the nature of work differently, in the context of basic income? In what way?

Vertolli: I think there are three major reasons why people work and each of them contribute differently to what work means. The first and most obvious one is to meet basic needs, such as food and shelter. The second major reason is for what I would call quality of life. This includes the purchasing of anything non-essential, such as a new smart-phone. Third, and finally, work is something that occupies people’s time. If the meaning of work is going to evolve, I expect it will evolve along one of these lines or at least based on one of them.

To be honest, I think few people in modern Euro-American nations have had to deal with the first reason for a while. A minimum wage job can provide for a single person who lives simply easily enough. I should know. I have been a university student for nine years. And, with increasing automation, I hope that this will generalize to other nations that have been impoverished by our success more often than not. Thus, this reason is not really a good candidate for how we think of work.

The second major reason is probably one of the biggest things today and thereby motivates much of what the average, modern Euro-American thinks of work. People like to have nice stuff, myself included. But, if automation takes off the way I expect it to, then the cost of everything is going to rapidly decline. Nice stuff will not have the value that it once did. This means we have at least a couple options to consider here. We can either abandon our current way of thinking in favour of something else or we can try to maintain it. One way we can do the latter is by creating pseudo-scarcity by controlling the rate of production. In other words, we can perpetuate a sense of scarcity in order to drive the economy.

I think this is the best indicator of a complete failure to enter the 21st century, but that is just my opinion. I also think it can’t possibly hold. The tech industry was built on the backs of some of the most anarchistic minds in the world and they are the gate keepers of all that software.

The third reason is the way I think we should go. If we buy the whole nine to five thing, work eats eight hours of the average persons day and I expect it is actually much more. This time is tied both to our identity and our sense of accomplishment, which is why there are such negative consequences for people who are out of work for a long time, including the elderly. Thus, the question is, in a world where no one needs to work for necessities or quality of life, how do we occupy ourselves and reward those who benefit society? Or, we should redefine work as a measure of our identity and productivity in the world — not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. As a fully funded PhD student, I live by this model and it is infinitely more fulfilling in my mind than what most people call ‘work.’

Benns: What do you think people most fear about basic income? Why or why not is this unfounded?

Vertolli: Those of older predilections and times probably still hear communism in it, despite the fact that no contemporary forms of communism have a basic income to my knowledge. I’m not really interested in addressing this issue but it’s there.

Another major reason is that the Boomers worked hard for their money. They are the second kind of work, in that they define themselves through and by that model of work. I can see almost every one of them saying, “You haven’t proven yourself. You don’t deserve nice things.” But, that’s just not true anymore: automation makes this metric moot. The problem is that when you challenge the model you are simultaneously challenging the Boomers’ identities, and they are the ones with all the power, for now.

Those who don’t fall into either of the previous two views probably are more sensitive to the social implications and required infrastructure change of such a move. For example, what happens to welfare and every other social service? What about the social stigma of living off of basic income or having it when others do not in the early stages? Basic income combined with automation will have as great an impact in the 21st century as both world wars did in the 20th. This is and should be terrifying. But, it’s a good kind of pain with an incredibly improved quality of living for all as an outcome.