Bill Gates and Elon Musk have said that artificial intelligence (A.I.) and the automatization of work will put much of the population out of work. They argue that solving this social problem requires universal basic income. Is this true, or is there another solution?
For decades, A.I. has promised to make a better world, one in which machines replace humans for menial jobs. Finally, we are entering an era where some of these predictions are coming true. For years, software has been used to construct 3D maps from satellite images automatically. Google uses A.I. to create a self-driving car that maps out streets and roads all over the world. Robot lawnmowers and vacuum cleaners have made a dent in the home market. A.I. garbage separation machines are now better able to sort waste in a useful manner. Face recognition software has allowed governments to automate surveillance, and parking companies use such software to recognize license plate numbers and bill customers automatically.
Most would agree that this development is beneficial, but what if the machines become so smart that human labor is unable to compete?
If jobs disappear due to automatization, permanent unemployment awaits.
Elon Musk and Bill Gates have put their creativity to work and come up with a solution: give up. Pay people to do nothing. Is that the best they can do? Surely such intelligent people can come up with a way to utilize the talents of human beings.
Even the most unskilled human is infinitely smarter than a cow, and companies have been able to create technology that cows can use to increase their productivity. Ingenious people have created milking booths. All the farmer needs to do is to train the cows that when they feel the urge to be milked, they walk into the booth, stand still, and let the machines do the rest. Inside, the cow is first automatically washed. Then A.I. is used to place the suction cups on the udders. And voila! The cow is milking itself. If cows can master technology, surely human labor can do much better.
An Attitude Problem?
The fact that entrepreneurs can envision A.I. solutions for animals such as cows but not for humans suggests that the problem is one of attitude. Settling for universal basic income is to declare eternal hopelessness for a significant portion of the human population. It has built into it the hidden premise that many humans are useless – mere waste that needs to be fed and entertained while the machines handle the real work.
However, we see all around us the seeds of solutions. Consider the new automats at McDonald’s where you can order your food on a touch screen rather than telling a human behind the counter to punch in your order. On the surface, it seems that a job has been eliminated, but the customers are still doing the job of punching in the order. Although the customer is not hired by McDonald’s, by doing part of the labor, the result is cheaper food.
It may seem like a trivial example, but it illustrates how machines can be used to increase the productivity of everyone. If a creative genius like Elon Musk had an equal desire to create work tools for the workforce as he has for going to Mars, he probably wouldn’t be proposing universal basic income.