The artificial intelligence (AI) craze goes well beyond the warm enthusiasm that usually accompanies any new technology that reaches the market. We're experiencing a paradigm shift that closely resembles the fundamental change brought by the introduction of cellphones in the early 2000s or by the informatics revolution in the late '90s. However, as it always happens with machines and as the Transformers taught us back in the '80s, there's more to it than meets the eye.
How many jobs are currently at risk when new automation and robotics technologies keep substituting humans with machines every day? How are we supposed to survive in a future where a huge percentage of occupations are made obsolete by AI?
If fewer humans are needed to do the same job, universal income may be the only answer to guarantee social stability. At the same time, it could become a way to make our society more equitable and socially sustainable. Once again, AI could be the answer to one of the biggest issues of human societies: leveling disparities between socioeconomic classes.
The Ethical Dilemma
The latest advancements in artificial intelligence did more than just show us that machines could outperform humans in many jobs. They raised the question of whether it is ethical not to substitute several human professions with their artificial counterparts.
If a synthetic pathologist or radiologist already is so many times better at detecting health conditions than a human, should we simply fire all the humans to hire machines in their places? But what about them, their jobs, their families, their lives? What about those who are currently investing time and money to get a degree that has become obsolete overnight? Should we tell them to stop studying, close the medical colleges, tell them to chose a different life? Is that ethical? On the other hand, if we preserve their jobs, how many people may lose their lives because their condition wasn't detected quickly enough (or even at all)? Once again, is that ethical?
The shift is inevitable, and one of the largest health care facilities in the United Kingdom, the University College London Hospital (UCLH) already announced its plan to implement AI instead of humans for cancer diagnosis and reducing wait times. The changes brought by this advancement are unstoppable: Evolution cannot be delayed, and massive societal transformations are parts of human history – no matter the consequences.
Whether it is ethical or not, many people are going to lose their jobs. Still, they're human beings, not just collateral damage. Yet, at least this time, are we sure there are no practical solutions that could help humankind leave as few martyrs as possible in the wake of the AI revolution?
The Actual Numbers
One of the biggest issues with this purported revolution, is that the numbers in place are simply outstanding. As the number of robotic equivalents employed in factories and workplaces grow, the cost of their implementation keeps shrinking at an exponential pace. According to recent research, in some countries the vast majority of jobs are at risk, ranging from as high as 88 percent in Ethiopia to 77 percent in China, 69 percent in India and 40 percent to 50 percent in major United States cities.
Some jobs are more at risk than others, with 97 percent of farm laborers and fast food cooks eventually replaced by intelligent robots. And it's already happening: Ball State University estimated that approximately 85 percent of the 5.6 million manufacturing jobs lost between 2000 and 2010 were lost due to automation rather than trade. (To learn more about AI in farm applications, see The 6 Most Amazing AI Advances in Agriculture.)
What makes this phenomenon even more alarming, is that most analysts that tried to predict the impact of the technological race in the job market only took automation and robotics into consideration. But we're not talking about the Industrial Revolution: Machines are not taking over the physical tasks we used to do. They're getting better than us at thinking, reacting and even making decisions. So the biggest question is: What's left to do for humans?
If we could all work less, we would expect our employers to pay us less – but you don't need a degree in economics to see how this would be the downfall of the modern consumerism-based economies. But let's stop for a second. What if humans who lack the skills, creativity or abilities to perform a unique job or simply be better than machines are still guaranteed the means to live a decent and dignified life? What if, instead of swelling the ranks of the newly poor, those people (which are the vast majority of humans, by the way) could have access to a basic income they could keep spending to fuel our economy?
Could Universal Basic Income (UBI) Be the Answer?
So far, universal basic income (UBI) has been mocked as an outrageously demagogical idea pushed by populist parties. A pitiful trick to lure starving masses of lazy millennials into supporting the latest politician or group with the promise of easy money. When talking about universal basic income, most people now imagine a Western world that is enslaved by its own intoxicating decadence. Hordes of debauched hypocrites adorned in barbaric tattoos and slithering pretension, seeking to slake their thirst for revelries without forcing themselves into decent and virtuous hard work.
That is not necessarily the case.
Called "socialism in disguise," "a zombie policy" or even "a tragic misdirection of a compassionate and libertarian impulse" by the most authoritative sources of information, UBI simply was an idea ahead of its time. It was proposed too early, and for the wrong reasons, but now, the times are changing. UBI is not just a simple cash benefit. It is the natural extension of the welfare state so dear to many European countries, a concept in which those who need it most receive a set income, regardless of their job, debts or previous history. It's a simple social equalizer, much like universal health care, and UBI could be required to keep millions from becoming homeless in the next 30 years. (To learn about a unique new health care plan, check out Amazon Health Care Plans – A True Market Revolution?)
The Concept of "Robot Taxes"
The idea of UBI is backed by some of the greatest minds and influential individuals in the technology sectors of our century, such as Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. Facebook's owner Zuckerberg defined it as an idea "to give everyone a cushion to try new things," while Richard Branson who promoted AI as a force that would "bring us immense new productivity" while posing "certainly a danger of income inequality" found in UBI the only possible solution to avert worldwide unemployment and poverty.
But one of the most interesting ways to see UBI is the one proposed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates: the idea of "robot taxes." Our society's welfare is supported by a basic assumption: that every one of us should pay a certain amount of taxes to grant the entire community (including himself) all the services needed (emergency services, social security, transportation, infrastructure, etc.). Every human worker must pay taxes in proportion to his or her revenue, and by doing so, it contributes to a more equal society where everyone can have access to, at least, the most basic services. If all these jobs are lost to automation, why shouldn't machines pay taxes as well and allow our society to survive?
Obviously, these taxes would be paid by those who build the AI or substitute humans with robots. After all, the company itself would benefit from the increased efficiency and significantly reduced costs of machines. If their profits increase, they pay more taxes, but how are those taxes going to be spent? What if the additional revenues – instead of being used to make rich people even richer – could be levied to grant humanity a more equitable world? And what if this idea has been already implemented in the past with rather successful outcomes?
Some Actual Examples
We know that there are some historical examples that show that UBI can become a reality, and that it has its own benefits as well. In 1976, Alaska established the $60 billion Alaska Permanent Fund, that collects revenues from the state's oil and mineral leases and uses them to provide its citizens with a basic payout of about $2,000 per person per year. More than 30 years after the introduction of such a lavish stipend, the Alaskan population didn't slowly descend into the deepest depths of self-indulgence. They didn't transform into degenerate communists unable to restrain their appetite for the most indecent frivolities while they spent their days slacking off.
Actually, the full-time employment rates didn't change, and the number of Alaskans who worked part-time even increased by 17 percent. On top of that, the poverty rate among Native Americans dropped 6 percent over 10 years, and now 71 percent of this state's residents would even gladly accept seeing their taxes increased to save the dividend payment.
A similar experiment, the Basic Income Grant (BIG), was launched in 2008 in Namibia, and the results have been equally good. Crime has dropped 36.5 percent and the percentage of malnourished children was reduced from 42 percent to 10 percent since its implementation. School dropout rates dropped from 30-40 percent to no more than 5 percent, and, guess what, people didn't become lazier and more dependent from the system – at all. In truth, the BIG project actually actively contributed to achieving the Millenium Development Goals set by the United Nations (now known as the Sustainable Development Goals).
Whether a project to include UBI worldwide is doable is still a matter of debate, and a technology website is definitely not the right place to decide it. Yet, it could be a ray of hope to shine a light in the dark future we all seem destined to face.