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Plutocrats and paupers: life after robots

Robotization
Technology
Equality

Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics will swallow up jobs, say the tech bosses, the analysts, the commentators: so we’ll need to pay everyone a basic income.

Populations are ageing, say the politicians: so we’ll all have to work for longer (Australia’s government is already considering raising the pension age to 70 by 2035).

These two narratives are incompatible. That’s the clue that a political question is being hidden: how to distribute income and employment as technology and demographics change? Instead of answers, a false inevitability is being created around one political option – the universal basic income (UBI).

A false inevitability is being created around one political option – the universal basic income (UBI)

The UBI is a proposed scheme where everyone would unconditionally receive a minimum income from the state; some say it could replace unemployment benefits along with other welfare support, reduce means-testing bureaucracy, and help people out of the poverty trap. As well as support from parts of the Left, a similar policy was proposed by Milton Friedman on the Right, and it has recently found favour among the tech elite.

Why? Beneath the apparent paternalism of these new-found reformists, their promotion of a basic income is a way to head off a sorely needed political debate: if automation does make much of our work obsolete, how should the profits and benefits of this be shared out?

How far to dystopia?

Mark Zuckerberg is one of those promoting it – although media commentators have poured scorn on his conversion to the policy. ‘Quite right, Mark. Give it a go,’ prodded John Thornhill in the Financial Times, suggesting Facebook funds the UBI itself. ‘The most valuable asset that Facebook possesses is the data that its users, often unwittingly, hand over for free before they are in effect sold to advertisers. It seems only fair that Facebook makes a bigger social contribution for profiting from this massively valuable, collectively generated resource.’

The cheek of tech billionaires asking the state to pay everyone a relative pittance as they stand to rake in untold material wealth from great technological advances is surpassed only by the audacity of assuming that automation should benefit only the privileged few – and that they should be the ones to decide what is done with its profits.

Neither is basic income a simple answer to the questions automation poses. How will it be funded? How much will it be? How will it be guaranteed, and for how long? And who will decide? On these questions the likes of Zuckerberg have been much quieter.

Such a dystopia, according to writer Curtis White, would be a world of the wealthy, with a second tier of people servicing their every emotional and physical need; the rest disposable

Perhaps Zuckerberg imagines a UBI could be funded by slashing other state spending – on healthcare, for example. But if automation really did hoover up a large chunk of jobs, and the technology remained in private hands, there would eventually be little money left to fund UBI other than that flowing to those workers in the remaining tech jobs – or to the tech giants or those wealthy enough to invest in the new technologies. For how long would they allow their wealth to be taxed for the rest?

That would be a society with – even compared to today – breathtakingly concentrated wealth and power. Such a dystopia, according to writer Curtis White, would be a world of the wealthy, with a second tier of people servicing their every emotional and physical need; the rest disposable.1

The poor and the elderly can move to shanty towns in places like ‘Mexico’, and talk to their grandchildren over Skype, proposes rightwing economist Tyler Cowen. In such a scenario, where a select few monopolize both wealth and (robotic) labour – and no doubt political power – who would trust them to continue paying a UBI indefinitely?

In the most extreme version of this, what Peter Frase calls ‘exterminism’, the rich, having seceded from the rest of society, realize that with robots replacing workers they no longer need the bulk of humanity. Tiring of allowing them to subsist, and of the risk of revolt they represent, the fabulously wealthy may decide the best solution is simply to wipe them – us – out.2

Make it public

We can’t let that happen – or forget that the techno-treasure is not theirs to keep. Technological advances are social, reliant on public funding. The internet was developed using US academic and military funding, with hackers and hobbyists contributing key technologies along the way. As for the tech giants, research for Google’s PageRank algorithm was funded by the US National Science Foundation; tax-shy Apple has also seen key iPhone technologies including Siri funded by public money.

As Greek economist and one-time finance minister Yanis Varoufakis puts it: ‘A common myth, promoted by the rich, is that wealth is produced individually before it is collectivized by the state, through taxation. In fact, wealth was always produced collectively and privatized by those with the power to do it: the propertied class.’

He proposes governments take a stake in new public corporations (PLCs), when they are floated on the stock market, yielding a ‘Universal Basic Dividend’. But although he states the issues boldly – ‘Our societies must embrace the rise of the machines, but ensure that they contribute to shared prosperity by granting every citizen property rights over them’ – his proposal seems meek, and wouldn’t tackle the dominance of the existing tech giants.

Others have suggested taxing the robots. Proponents include Bill Gates and French Socialist Party candidate Benoit Hamon, (who also supports a basic income). But most mainstream politicians are ducking the question altogether; the European Parliament earlier this year voted down a report proposing both UBI and a robot tax.

‘Our societies must embrace the rise of the machines, but ensure that they contribute to shared prosperity by granting every citizen property rights over them’ – economist Yanis Varoufakis

Even this tax would only slow down the technology’s introduction – without tackling the question of control. Who owns the robots? Who decides how to distribute the vast wealth they could create? For a technology promising to destroy so many jobs, those affected should at least have a say in these discussions.

In the US, socialist Seattle councillor Kshama Sawant, who like Bernie Sanders received support from tech employees (perhaps wary of the power their bosses are amassing), has argued for bringing companies like Amazon and Microsoft into public ownership, as state-owned, worker-run businesses.

This is more to the point – democratic oversight would make it more likely that the profits of AI and automation were distributed fairly – and that technology developed in socially useful ways, not purely pursuing profit.

There are other options, too. Underlying technologies should be made available for all to use and adapt – how about starting by insisting all tech and software developed and bought using public money must be made open-source?

Whether or not we are all made unemployed by an influx of AIs driving our taxis, writing our novels and fighting our legal battles, these political questions need consideration. The hybrid communo-capitalist dream of a basic income grafted onto the twitching corpse of our current economic system is just that: an illusion.

Curtis White, We, Robots: Staying Human in the Age of Big Data, Melville House Publishing, 2015.
Peter Frase, Four Futures: Life After Capitalism, Verso, London, 2016.

Thumbnail image: President Obama sitting for a 3D portrait. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

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