Every human used to have to hunt or gather to survive. But, as humans are smart, we made tools to make our work easier. From sticks, to stones, to tractors – we’ve gone from everyone required to produce food to modern agriculture with only 1.5% of the UK required to make food, with plentiful supplies of food.
Of course, it’s not just farming. We’ve spent the last several thousand years building tools to reduce physical labour of all types. These are stronger, more reliable and efficient mechanical muscles. The thing is, our tools are now becoming far, far better than we could ever hope to be, they are even able to become mechanical minds. I’m talking about robots; as it is them that will shape our future.
A 2014 study by Frey and Osborne estimated that 35% of jobs in the UK in 2013 had a greater than 66% chance of being automated in the next two decades. The Bank of England used the same methodology to estimate that up to 15 million UK jobs could be automated over the next 20 years. To put this into context, the Great Depression led to an unemployment rate of 15% in Britain, 3 million people were unemployed. After the Great Depression, the unemployment rate reduced in buildup to war. However, this is highly unlikely to happen as technology improves. Today’s robots are able to learn, adapt and evolve – just like humans. This means that skilled labour, relying on thought, can too be automated without complex programming or expensive custom-made equipment, but by intelligent robots. Once this technology becomes better than humans and cheap enough for mass production, we could see a revolution in productivity and unemployment as robots fill the places of people in the workforce.
We need to start planning for a future where vast swathes of the population will be unemployable through no fault of their own. We are almost guaranteed to see the highest level of unemployment seen in recent human history. Will this be the emancipation of humanity or will it lead to immense poverty and inequality?
Bill Gates recently proposed an ‘automation tax’, saying “right now, the human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory, that income is taxed … If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level.” An ‘automation tax’ would slow automation to a manageable rate. Additionally, it would stop the owners of robots from becoming super-rich as government revenue plummets, plunging the rest of us into austerity. In fact, increased productivity from automation could lead to enormous increase in revenue, which can then be redistributed among everyone else. There is no difference in revenue between taxing 50% of the income of a hundred workers, each earning £20,000 per year, and taxing 50% of the “income” of one robot “earning” £2,000,000 per year: in each case, the revenue is £1,000,000.
The simplest, fairest and most efficient way of distributing this additional revenue would be through a universal basic income. BasicIncome.org describe it as “a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement.” It could begin at a low rate and grow to be enough to not only survive, but live on. It has some support from across the Welsh political spectrum. A basic income is Plaid Cymru policy; the Green Party advocated a similar ‘Citizen’s Income’ during the 2015 election; and, Mark Drakeford, the Welsh Government’s finance secretary, described the idea as “attractive”. Hopefully, the progressive parties will prepare for the future in the upcoming General Election manifestos by proposing a basic income.
Universal basic income is an idea whose time has come. Countries across the world are trialling the idea. The Finnish government, among many others, hopes its basic income trial will encourage unemployed people to take on part-time work without worrying about losing their benefits and lead to a higher standard of living for all. The Finnish trial offers €560 a month to those chosen to take part. It’s a stark contrast to our current unemployment benefits, where taking part-time or one-off work often leads to sanctions or freezes. In the short term, basic income is a flexible and humane grant for ingenuity, peace of mind and enormous reductions in poverty. In the longer term, it is an absolute necessity for saving ourselves from absolute poverty and rampant inequality – a world of those who control the robots, and those who are controlled and replaced by the robots. As long as capitalism exists, a basic income is essential for having some level of equality and fairness.
Automation, with it’s high unemployment and opportunity for both utopian emancipation and immense poverty, is unstoppable. What we must do is manage the transition to automation and ensure that the vast majority of people benefit from automation, rather than create a minute elite.