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As automation accelerates experts debate Universal Basic Income alternatives



Increasingly sophisticated technologies are bringing about a new revolution in automation that threatens hundreds of millions of jobs, and if unemployment rises governments will need a way to support people who are affected.


In Budapest last week a small crowd gathered to watch Steve Fuller, author of Humanity 2.0 and the Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology at Warwick University, debate with Zoltán Pogátsa, a Hungarian political economist, and the topic they were debating was whether or not Universal Basic Income (UBI), the socialist style welfare payment system that’s being hailed by many around the world as the only way to “prevent anarchy” when technology helps automate away more and more human jobs, and that’s already being trialled in countries like Canada and Finland, will be, or more to the point should be, the “social security net of the future.”


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Pogátsa favoured UBI, outlining both the existing problems and future challenges that it could solve. When discussing the growing concern of automation linked job loss, he compared UBI to a more advanced form of welfare, one that might benefit citizens and elevate them into better circumstances, circumstances that, Pogátsa argues, are unattainable under the current welfare system, and Fuller heartily disagreed.

In an interview after the debate Fuller stated that he thought that UBI is a system that once made sense, but that this no longer holds true.

“Universal basic income, at the end of the day, is an idea that made sense in an older era, one where we imagined a strong state that would actually take control of the population and feel responsible for it, as a result of increasing productivity and so forth,” and then he elaborated, saying that he doesn’t think UBI is flawed, but that it’s just not the correct solution to our modern difficulties.

“It’s an old socialist welfare state idea. We do not live in an old socialist welfare state world anymore. And as a result, we need a renegotiation of the terms.”


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Earlier in the debate, when Pogátsa stated that UBI would be like an advanced form of welfare, Fuller remarked that “a half-assed version isn’t the solution. That’s the point,” then he elaborated, noting that we need a system that takes automation into consideration and is a permanent solution to the problems that it poses, not just a quick and temporary fix.

However, Fuller didn’t just shut down the idea of UBI. While he asserted that UBI, as we have known and defined it, isn’t a correct fit for our current world, he stated that there are other, more realistic solutions, and ones that address the issues that stem from the development of increasingly sophisticated and capable technology, like Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Fuller suggested that, as we continue to get farther into the data-driven technological age, one solution could be to force companies to pay for the information that they currently take from us for nothing, something that has been suggested many times before.

“We could hold Google and Facebook and all those big multinationals accountable, we could make sure that people, like those who are currently ‘voluntarily’ contributing their data to pump up companies’ profits, are given something that is adequate to support their livelihoods in exchange.”


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So, instead of the government doling out standard salaries to all citizens, which is basically what UBI calls for, people would be financially compensated for the data that they give to companies by these very same companies. This could mean that social media giants and other websites that ask for your personal information would have to fairly compensate you for the information that they take from you.

It’s an interesting and novel idea, but it could make for a legislative and regulatory nightmare, asides from the fact that it’s unlikely that companies like Facebook, for example, would ever pay anyone more than 50 cents for their data – which would hardly be a living wage. And then there are other issues, such as how much should a company have to pay for a person’s email address or phone number or clothing preferences? How do we ensure that people aren’t supplying, or companies aren’t collecting, inaccurate information? Will companies be forced to make a plethora of micro-transactions to pay their millions of users and visitors for this information?

In short, this is an idea that could end up costing companies and governmental regulatory agencies an exorbitant amount of money, so while it’s an interesting idea it’s one that, unfortunately, probably has to go on the bonfire.


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Alternatively though if companies are charged a flat fee by the government based on, for example, the number of users or visitors, the type of data they collect and what kind of information they sell on to third parties then perhaps we have a solution. Albeit at the moment how it would work in practise, let alone pan out.

The money that the companies pay could be placed in a public trust that is used to support the education system and other parts of the national infrastructure, and this would offset some of the monetary burden currently placed on citizens and simultaneously ensure the stability of the economy as AI and automation continue to advance us farther and farther into a data-driven era.

Needless to say the ideas are still in their infancy and in the meantime elsewhere South Korea have just rolled out an Automation Tax in order to help slow the pace of automation, Hawaii have just passed a bill supporting UBI, as when and if it’s needed, and California are proposing a Robot Tax. So, as the pace and breadth of automation continues to accelerate across industries, from financial services to agriculture and transportation, it’s important that governments do all they can to ensure that there are safety nets in place – if and when we need them because having a plan is better than having no plan at all and seeing millions of people crash below the poverty line when their jobs disappear.

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