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This article was published on March 10, 2021

Why people should get paid to let AI do their jobs for them

Why people should get paid to let AI do their jobs for them Image by: Photographer: Arthur Caranta
Tristan Greene
Story by

Tristan Greene

Editor, Neural by TNW

Tristan covers human-centric artificial intelligence advances, quantum computing, STEM, Spiderman, physics, and space stuff. Pronouns: He/hi Tristan covers human-centric artificial intelligence advances, quantum computing, STEM, Spiderman, physics, and space stuff. Pronouns: He/him

The idea of a universal minimum/basic income (UBI) isn’t new or nearly as radical as those both in favor and opposed to it would have you believe. Dozens of cities across the globe are either currently running or have run UBI test programs. And the results are usually positive.

Simply put: the outcomes for people who receive a UBI are typically demonstrably better than people in similar financial and economic situations who don’t.

But a significant number of people ranging from laypersons to economics experts believe that paying people for what they consider “not working” is a bad idea.

The solution, of course, is artificial intelligence. What if we scrapped the idea of a UBI and, instead, allowed AI to do all the work while we just cash the paychecks?

What? This is also not a new or radical idea. Workplace automation is occurring across most employment domains already. Whether you’re in danger of being displaced by automation, you’ve become a cyborg by adding machine learning solutions to your normal working routine, or you just save 30 seconds per email by clicking on Google’s automated response suggestions, you probably use AI to do your day-to-job. Even if you don’t, the writing is on the wall.

In the near future, it’ll be more common for general industries to look for automated solutions first before creating employment opportunities for humans.

Background: The conversation about UBI used to be entirely centered on caring for the most vulnerable segments of society. Especially in the wake of COVID-19 where unemployment and houselessness are ravaging even previously-stable economic areas.

But we won’t know the full extent of the effects of the pandemic until it passes entirely. Whether that occurs in a matter of months or we’ve still got years to go, the end result will almost certainly involve a massive global industrial and commercial shift.

Some of those jobs that got put on hold when the world shut down will go away entirely, others may change in ways we cannot predict. 

A couple of years ago most of us couldn’t have imagined such a large portion of the workforce pivoting to work from home. Now, we’ve given thousands of businesses an opportunity to consider what a people-free workplace might look like. It’s not outlandish to imagine a paradigm shift towards employeeless businesses that maximize profits by limiting overhead and cutting human-related costs. 

Capitalism 

The current paradigm is simple: you work, you make money, you pay taxes, those taxes get spread around to do stuff for everyone… including people who don’t work or pay taxes. Some people think this is fine because of the greater good, others feel like they shouldn’t have to work so others don’t have to.

It might be easier to just scrap the idea of a UBI and, instead, give us all AI employment avatars so we don’t have to work but still collect a regular paycheck. After all, this is exactly what rich people do, but instead of creating an AI that does something useful they just accumulate wealth instead.

The roundabout average interest on a million dollars in a bank account is usually somewhere around $30K a year. The US government pegs the minimum wage at much less than that. Which means, according to Uncle Sam, you should be able to live on less than the interest from a seven-figure trust fund.

Yet our government, society, and the capitalist culture all seem to agree that getting paid for doing nothing is wrong unless you’re wealthy. And that’s probably a good thing. Because the government really needs that money to accumulate in banks so it and the banks can borrow it without asking (that’s how the interest gets there).

But the undeniable fact of the matter is that someone making the minimum wage, and contributing directly to the workforce, earns less than someone who cashes in a million dollar trust fund and just doesn’t feel like working.

A non-political view on this would be: that if it’s okay for us to let our accumulated wealth generate income for us, it should be universally acceptable for us to design AI systems that do our job for us.

Unfortunately, we all know that isn’t the case. In 2016 a Redditor (who’s since deleted their post and account, thus we won’t name them here) posted their account of allegedly being fired from a tech job after six years without actually doing any work. The clever (or lazy, depending on your view) employee, according to the post, designed a program to automate their coding duties and just borked off at work all day for six whole years until they got caught.

In the real world: That example might confirm everyone’s fears that society might collapse if we just give people money and take away their will to work, grow, and succeed. But, we’re only guessing that everyone who automates their job will want to take a permanent vacation.

The fear that someone who doesn’t deserve it will get something for free that we’ve worked so hard for is often a strong motivator against altruistic ideas such as UBI.

But there’s no system that will take care of only those who need it while remaining impervious to human corruption or laziness.

The reality is that we know beyond a shadow of the doubt a UBI could save lives. There are people who won’t eat today who otherwise would if they had money.

But a guaranteed income from a government ran by politicians owned by corporate lobbyists, as things are in the US and other capitalist regimes, may not be the best way to help We The People, whether you support UBI or not.

Instead, let’s take the aforementioned Redditor who automated their job as an example. What if, instead of punishing that person by firing them, we used them as a prototype for an “automation employment avatar?”

How it would work: Let’s stick to the US for an example, as it’s a country mired in the kind of partisanship that prevents UBI from being seriously discussed. Based on what conservatives and liberals have said about UBI, the only thing we all agree on is that US citizens who are not incarcerated or otherwise prevented from the full rights of citizenship should have the right to work.

So, instead of giving citizens a UBI, the government could give humans the explicit right to employment. With the right to employment, we could legislate huge tax benefits for corporations that employ humans. And simply get rid of tax breaks for those that don’t.

Those companies that automate existing human positions or that feature automation beyond a certain threshold, would be ineligible for tax breaks unless they paid out “automation avatar” salaries to humans in order to compensate for worker displacement.

In this way, companies like Amazon that manage to avoid paying taxes would still have to contribute to society in the same way that a mom and pop pizza restaurant does when it’s forced to pay its full share.

If that pizza place wants to lay off its cook in favor of a robot oven, it’ll have to pay that human a continuing salary if it wants to participate in the US tax credit system. For new businesses, say an automated pizza kitchen opens up on the same block as our mom and pop human-run shop, it’ll have to pay human salaries too, if its owners want tax breaks, even if they don’t employ any real people.

And, if the same went for Amazon, we could likely solve poverty in the US faster than you can say “two-day shipping.” 

It’s not a perfect plan, but neither is UBI. And the status quo is about as anti-human as it gets. There are at least 18.6 million people in the US who could live above the poverty line off the annual interest from their bank accounts alone, but more than 40 million people in the US currently exist in poverty.

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