The idea of a Universal Basic Income may seem utopian (and one of the earliest mentions of UBI was over 500 years ago in Thomas More’s Utopia), but the idea that artificial intelligences will be able to do much of our work is also utopian.
With the rapid advances in AI and automation, we are approaching an inflection point for society. AI and automation threaten to do to many white-collar jobs in the coming decades what previous technological advances did to blue-collar jobs. Previous shifts have created new jobs and opportunities, but how many jobs will there be in the future when AI can perform complex cognitive tasks as well as humans can?
The benefits from previous technological advances have largely accrued to those who have the capital to own the technology. How society should respond to the opportunities and threats that AI and automation poses is one of the most pressing questions we face today. Should the benefits from these technologies be shared widely by society, or should they be hoarded by an elite few who already have more money than they can spend in multiple lifetimes? A UBI is one way of answering this question, attempting to ensure that everyone can meet their basic needs. Mr. Mayer is viewing a 21st century challenge through a 20th century lens.
One argument Mr. Mayer raises for opposing UBI is the idea that those who are not in paid employment do not contribute to society. This narrow view of equating someone’s social value as being tied to their economic value is fundamentally wrong and can be used to justify some dangerous positions. The start of the pandemic showed everyone just how vital some of the lowest paid workers are to society, and many people generously volunteer their time to a wide range of causes generating immense social benefits. Just a few weeks ago, the front page of the NG Times was dedicated to an individual who had received an award for his decades of volunteering. A society is not simply a series of monetary transactions.
Support for UBI comes from a wide range of politicians, economists, and business leaders. It is not isolated to one particular ideological viewpoint. UBI may seem like a fanciful, unrealistic idea, but we do things every day that were only depicted in works of fiction a few decades ago.