The rich and the poor: life after robots

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The rich and the poor: life after robots


If robots take away jobs, inequality could get worse. The solutions we have are not enough. Nick Dowson writes.

The tech bosses and commentators say artificial intelligence (AI) and robots will take away jobs so we will need to pay everyone a basic income. The politicians say people are getting older so we will have to work for longer. Australia is thinking about a pension age of 70 by 2035. These two possibilities do not work together. So the political question is: how to share income and employment as technology and populations change? One political possibility is universal basic income (UBI). But this is not the only possibility.

UBI means everyone receives a minimum income from the state. Some say it could replace unemployment benefits and other welfare support, reduce work to check people’s incomes, and help people out of poverty. Parts of the Left and Milton Friedman on the Right, and the tech bosses all support UBI. This is because of the political problem: if automation takes away jobs, how do we share the profits?

How far to terrible inequality?

Mark Zuckerberg supports UBI but some in the media criticised him for this. John Thornhill in the Financial Times wrote, ‘Quite right, Mark. Try it.’ He suggested Facebook pays for UBI. ‘Facebook has the valuable data that its users give for free and they often do not know it. Then Facebook sells the data to advertisers. It seems fair that Facebook makes a bigger social contribution for making money from this data.’ It is strange that the tech billionaires are asking the state to pay everyone a little money when they make a lot of money from technology. It is stranger that they think automation should be good only for the very few and that they should decide what to do with the profits.

And UBI is not a simple answer to the problems of automation. Where will the money come from? How much will it be? How will we guarantee it, and for how long? And who will decide? Zuckerberg and others say nothing about these questions.

Writer Curtis White says this would be a world for the rich with some people giving them everything they need. The rest of us would not be needed.

Perhaps Zuckerberg thinks we can pay for UBI by taking away other state spending – for example, on healthcare. But if automation really takes away jobs and the technology is in private hands, there will not be enough money for UBI. There would be money for the workers in the tech jobs or for the big tech companies or for those rich people with enough money to invest in the new technologies. For how long would they allow taxes on their money to go to the rest?

Tyler Cowen is a rightwing economist. He says the poor and the old can move to shanty towns in places like ‘Mexico’, and talk to their grandchildren over Skype. In a world where only a few people have money and robotic labour – and no doubt political power – who can trust them to continue paying UBI for ever?

Another worse possibility is that when robots replace workers, the rich will no longer need other people. With the risk of revolt, the very rich will simply kill all other people.

Make it public

We can’t allow that. We can’t forget that the money from technology is not theirs to keep. Technology is social and needs public money. The internet used US academic and military money, with hackers and hobbyists helping the technologies later. The US National Science Foundation gave money for research on Google’s PageRank algorithm. Public money helped Apple with iPhone technologies including Siri.

Another idea is to tax the robots. Bill Gates and French Socialist Party candidate, Benoit Hamon agree with this, Benoit Hamon also supports UBL. But most politicians are not really thinking about the question. The European Parliament earlier in 2017 voted against a report which suggested UBI and a robot tax.

Even this tax would only slow down the technology’s introduction. But who owns the robots? Who decides how to share the money they could make? If the technology is going to take away so many jobs, the people who lose their jibs must take part in these discussions.

In the US, socialist Seattle councillor Kshama Sawant suggests the public own companies like Amazon and Microsoft so that workers run the businesses. This means it is more likely that we share the profits of AI and automation fairly and that technology is socially useful and not only for profit.

There are other possibilities. We can make technologies free for everyone to use. How about making open-source all tech and software made from public money?

If we lose or if we do not lose our jobs because AIs are driving our taxis, writing our novels, and fighting for us in court, we need to think about these political questions.

Nick Dowson is a writer and journalist who writes on topics including health, technology and power, housing, transport and the environment. He is New Internationalist’s Web Editorial Intern.

Nick Dowson is known as @nickmdowson on Twitter


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).