But tech anxiety got a fresh jolt last month when the White House sent out a Council of Economic Advisers report including a projection that people making less than $20 an hour have an 83 percent chance of eventually losing their jobs to a robot. The odds for those earning up to $40 an hour are more than 30 percent.
Not that most Americans would find that very surprising. According to a Pew Internet Survey released last week, more than two-thirds of Americans think that within 50 years, most jobs will be done by robots or computers—although the vast majority conveniently thought that won’t happen with their own jobs.
No matter how this plays out, it’s pretty clear that machines will be handling more and more work, particularly now that increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence is enabling them to take on mental tasks too. And that is raising a big question: When machines dominate the work world, what are all the people they replace going to do for money?
Checks for everyone
Remarkably, one idea starting to gain traction is known as universal basic income (UBI). It’s a simple, if somewhat radical concept—each citizen of a country would receive a monthly check from the government, no matter how much money you make and without any strings attached. You wouldn’t have to meet any conditions to qualify, you wouldn’t have to show you were looking for a job, you wouldn’t face any restrictions on how you spent the money.
Plenty of people think this is a bad idea, or at least a seriously unbaked one. Critics say all that easy money could result in a nation of game-playing, binge-watching freeloaders. But others counter that if there’s a tech takeover of the job market, society will need a safety blanket, not a net. They also posit that those who don’t have to take just any job to cover basic expenses may be able to do things that are more fulfilling or perhaps more beneficial to society.
The truth is that no one knows how people will respond. But there’s a growing consensus that it’s time to start finding out. Next year, government researchers in Finland will begin a two-year study, in which up to 100,000 Finns will receive as much as 1,000 euros a month, without any conditions. The scientists running the experiment will track how often the subjects use public services, such as health clinics, and attempt to get a sense of how much they really want to work. The researchers will also try to determine if a monthly, strings-free check lets people lead happier lives.
The response to UBI in the U.S. has been mixed at best, with much of the enthusiasm for exploring the concept coming from Silicon Valley. One of its biggest proponents has been Sam Altman, president of Y Combinator, the firm that has helped startups such as Reddit, Airbnb and Dropbox hook up with investors.
In late January, Altman announced that Y Combinator will be doing its own research—specifically a five-year project in which a random group of people “who are driven and talented, but come from poor backgrounds” will be provided with a basic income.
“I’m fairly confident that at some point in the future, as technology continues to eliminate traditional jobs and massive new wealth gets created, we’re going to see some version of this at a national scale,” Altman wrote in his blog on the Y Combinator site.
So, says Altman, why not find out now if a regular paycheck from the government turns people into dregs or makes them more entrepreneurial, whether it boosts their spirits or diminishes them?
And, in the end, will people be happier if they don’t need to get a job to survive?
“Fifty years from now,” wrote Altman, “I think it will seem ridiculous that we used fear of not being able to eat as a way to motivate people.”
Here are six jobs robots could be handling one day: