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The solution to the impending robot jobpocalypse is free money

Ranjan Crasta | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:49 IST

Earlier this year, the Swiss took part in a landmark referendum - on whether every citizen should be paid a guaranteed monthly income or not. While the Swiss overwhelmingly voted down the seemingly appealing idea, the concept itself is one that still holds merit.

In fact, basic minimum income may soon go from being an idealistic possibility to an inescapable reality, all thanks to the era of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics we have just entered.

The rise of the robots

AI is great. So are robots. The problem's just that they're probably better than us. Or at least they soon will be with technology advancing as rapidly as it is. And once that happens, they're going to take a number of jobs that we once did.

It's not just a futuristic scenario either, robots are already taking human jobs en masse. The Swiss basic monthly income idea was in part due to the ridiculously high cost of living; but it was also due to a huge percentage of existing Swiss jobs coming under threat from automation.

A situation like this would result in a decrease in the overall spending power of a country's consumer base. Consequently, businesses will suffer and since failing businesses cannot support jobs, the vicious cycle starts all over again.

The numbers are grim

Yet this is a situation that's soon going to be experienced the world over. According to a report published by the World Economic Forum in January, automation is set to cause a net loss of 5 million jobs by 2020. And that's just among 15 major world economies, India being one.

More alarming statistics have since been released. Just this past week, a study by the International Labour Organisation showed that almost 56% of ALL jobs in Cambodia, Thailand, Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia will be replaced by automation. While it doesn't mention India, a lot of inferences from the study are also applicable to India.

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As the world stands on the cusp of an unprecedented change, it's imperative that we think up solutions to the impending job crisis. And soon, before the tidal wave of automation comes crashing down leaving mass joblessness and consequent civil unrest in its wake.

A 200-year-old solution to a future problem

There are multiple different ways to combat the coming layoffs. One is simply through the jobs all these new advances will create - much like how the advent of the computer spawned millions of jobs.

The other is to increase our focus on future-proof jobs, jobs that will still need humans. Jobs in the care sector, those involving critical and creative thinking and others that require a high level of skill. All of these will require education and hence we will need to increase access to quality education.

But both these solutions will still leave an ever increasing population competing for a still limited, and possibly even shrinking, pool of jobs.

AI will create jobs as well, much like the advent of the computer did. The net result however, will be a loss

Inequality will rise as those fortunate enough to still have jobs as well as captains of industry will continue to get richer, leaving the rest of society to flounder hopelessly. And what do broke and prospect-less people do? Nothing good, as history has proven time and time again.

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But there is a solution, in fact, it's a solution that dates back to one of America's founding fathers Thomas Paine. Paine, in the 1790s had proposed the idea that every citizen of the newly formed country should be paid a basic income, irrespective of what station he held, whether or not he was employed.

Paine felt this would help prevent inequality. But, before you go dismissing him out of hand as being idealistic, it's worth noting that there have been numerous people, ranging from Martin Luther King Jr., to the father of the free market school of thought, Milton Friedman, who have all been in favour of a guaranteed basic income.

The need for a free basic income

In a time of rising unemployment, it only makes sense that citizens are granted an unconditional basic income to meet their daily needs. While it may seem like it would be impossible to fund, it really isn't that hard considering the way our governments spend money on welfare programs which clearly aren't working, given the growing inequality we see today.

Instead of focusing on trying to provide people with food rations or free education, a sensible solution would be to reallocate this money towards providing universal basic income - a sensible guaranteed monthly income in line with a country's cost of living. Individuals would then be able to spend that money according to their order of priorities.

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The criticisms of this are obvious. Won't people squander this on alcohol and drugs? Won't people just lose the drive to actually work for a living? The answer to both of these questions, at least according to a host of studies, is no.

A trial of this system occurred in the US. With a total of 13 homeless men, some who'd been homeless over 45 years were asked what they wanted, rather than being given what researchers thought they needed. The average outlay for each was under US $1,300. A year later, 11 of the men were no longer homeless, leaving The Economist to comment that "The most efficient way to spend money on the homeless might be to give it to them".

So what got 11 almost-professionally homeless men to fix their lives? Control. Several of the men said they worked with the program because they felt they were offered a choice about what they wanted rather than being forced into shelters or given handouts they may have needed, but never asked for.

It's human nature. When we do things because we want to, rather than just being incentivised to, or worse, because we must, we tend to do better. Dan Pink, the best-selling management and motivation guru touches on just this in his Ted Talk.

The most efficient way to spend money on the homeless might be to give it to them -- The Economist

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Human's aren't inherently lazy. We all have things we want to do, or see, or achieve. A universal basic income would just free us to pursue these things. Occupied, content individuals are more likely to be productive members of society, something that will help both social stability as well as the economy.

What's more, this money would also factor in education, allowing people to pursue academics in fields that interest them, leading to a globally more skilled workforce. The sort of workforce that would survive in a market where robots have taken over the more mundane tasks. All of which makes a free basic income one of the most viable solutions to the impending robot job-takeover.

First published: 14 July 2016, 12:53 IST
Ranjan Crasta @jah_crastafari

The Ranjan (Beardus Horribilis) is a largely land-dwelling herbivorous mammal. Originally from a far more tropical habitat, the Ranjan can now be found wandering the streets of Delhi complaining about the weather, looking for watering holes and foraging for affordable snacks. Mostly human, mostly happy and mostly harmless, the Ranjan is prone to mood swings when deprived of his morning coffee. Having recently migrated to the Catch offices, he now inhabits a shadowy corner and spends his time distracting people and producing video content to distract them further.