Interesting conjectural essay in the New York Times today entitled A Plan in Case Robots Take the Jobs: Give Everyone a Paycheck. Author Farhad Manjoo rightly notes and foresees that it’s not a question of will robots and automation supplant the need for human labor in future society, but when.
Manjoo postulates that in the face of such massive human displacement, perhaps it’s time to revisit the old left-wing trope of universal basic income. In a world where robots liberate humans to do what they want while simultaneously increasing business efficiency (ie, revenue), isn’t it time to consider a basic cost-of-living handout to all citizens?
Rather than a job-killing catastrophe, tech supporters of U.B.I. consider machine intelligence to be something like a natural bounty for society: The country has struck oil, and now it can hand out checks to each of its citizens.
These supporters argue machine intelligence will produce so much economic surplus that we could collectively afford to liberate much of humanity from both labor and suffering.
The most idealistic thinkers see the plan as a way to foster the sort of quasi-utopian future we’ve only encountered in science fiction universes like that of “Star Trek.” As computers perform more of our work, we’d all be free to become artists, scholars, entrepreneurs or otherwise engage our passions in a society no longer centered on the drudgery of daily labor.
Sounds great and all, awesome, even mildly Utopian.
The day is approaching; mostly likely not in our lifetimes, but we will reach a point of labor stasis where the need for human workers, and all their attendant costs, failings, mental breeches and inefficiencies, will dip below a level of economic justification. What will we do with all these idle people, many whom have potential to make grand contributions to a society that has no need for them based on the old “worker/employer” paradigm?
Sam Altman, president of the tech incubator Y Combinator, recently proposed to fund research into U.B.I. The firm has received thousands of applications for research funding, Mr. Altman said; it plans to select winning recipients within a few weeks, and ultimately Y Combinator plans to spend “tens of millions” of dollars on research to answer some of the most basic questions about life under U.B.I.
Mr. Altman said these questions range from the most practical — how much U.B.I. would cost the country, and whether we could afford it — to deeper issues concerning people’s motivation and purpose in what you might call a “postwork” age.
When you give everyone free money, what do people do with their time? Do they goof off, or do they try to pursue more meaningful pursuits? Do they become more entrepreneurial? How would U.B.I. affect economic inequality? How would it alter people’s psychology and mood? Do we, as a species, need to be employed to feel fulfilled, or is that merely a legacy of postindustrial capitalism?
Frankly, based on what I’ve seen, it’s a desperate romanticization to assume people are anything other than lazy hedonists across the board. All races, levels of intelligence and morality, religions…all equally despicable and lazy. That sums up our species.
There will be no great “self-growth” or spiritual evolution when people are freed up to do what they want.
You want to know what self-actualization is for most members of the human race? I’ll tell you: fornicating, eating, sleeping, talking, laughing, getting high. That’s it…that’s all people will devote their lives to in the postwork age.
I would suggest that the robotic age will not bring great human spiritual advancement; instead, we will revert to the base animals we are.