WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
As analysts predict that more jobs will be replaced by automation and machines a new White House report plays down Universal Basic Incomes and prioritises investment and education.
A new 55 page White House report that investigates the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation on American jobs and the economy warns that tens of millions of jobs will be automated out of existence in coming years but cautions against recommending Universal Basic Income (UBI) as the sole solution.
The report, which was published this week by the President’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), joins a cacophony of opinions, reports and other surveys that are also forecasting massive jobs losses around the world as a result of increasing automation and dramatic improvements in the capabilities of new AI systems.
In 2013 Oxford University published what is now regarded as a seminal paper that concluded that up to 47 percent of all of todays jobs would be automated in the next twenty years and similarly the new White House report also forecasts the loss of tens of millions of jobs with no sector, and very few jobs immune from the march of technology.
Fears of widespread unemployment driven by automation have helped popularize the idea of paying everyone, irrespective of their background and circumstances, a regular lump sum of money to either complement or replace their earnings – UBI. A concept that’s already being trialled in countries including Canada, Finland, the Netherlands and Scotland, and which is also gaining favour in Norway, Sweden, the UK and the US, UBI is being pushed by conservative thinkers like Milton Friedman and Silicon Valley investment firms like Y Combinator who think that, under the circumstances, it might be cheaper and easier to administer than other more complex forms of social welfare. But Obama’s White House prefers to focus on education and job training rather than guaranteed income.
“We shouldn’t advance a policy that is predicated on giving up on the possibility of workers’ remaining employed,” says the paper says, “our goal should be first and foremost to foster the skills, training, job search assistance, and other labor market institutions to make sure people can get into jobs, which would much more directly address the employment issues raised by AI than would UBI.”
The report advocates a four pronged approach that includes more funding for technical education, an expanded social safety net, and, paradoxically, more money for AI research.
“If care is taken to responsibly maximize its development, AI will make important, positive contributions to aggregate productivity growth, and advances in AI technology hold incredible potential to help the United States stay on the cutting edge of innovation,” says the report.
The report is in line with an earlier White House report from October, the Preparing for the Future Artificial Intelligence report, as well statements made by President Obama throughout the year. Both the latest report and the President commented on the need for government to fund research to help reduce the level of algorithmic bias baked into future technologies.
“The government should add a relatively light touch, investing heavily in research and making sure there’s a conversation between basic research and applied research,” said President Obama in October. But Jim Pugh, the founder of the UBI advocacy group Universal Income Project, says that UBI doesn’t need to conflict with the goal of training workers for the jobs of the future and, in fact, can help further that goal.
“We see basic income as something that would enable a wider variety of types of work rather than a stop gap for people who no longer have job opportunities due to automation,” says Pugh, “this is something that allows them to deal with a more chaotic work environment and opens up opportunities for new types of work.”
But the bigger question in the near future is how seriously the Trump administration will take the issues raised in the report.
“When you look at Trump’s stance on jobs in general, he thinks that immigration and free trade are the things that have robbed us of jobs, not automation,” says Rob May, the founder of the human resources automation company Talla, “it will be interesting to see if, as time goes on, the administration sees automation as something that is inevitable or if they try to put policies in place that try to fight it.”
Pugh, however, believes that there is plenty of room for the states, particularly California, to get involved in responding to the issues raised by automation.
“We could pursue policies on both the research front and smaller steps that can take us along the path of basic income,” he says, “the important thing is that the public starts to think about how AI will shape the future.”
“Whether a universal income is the right model, is it gonna be accepted by a broad base of people? That’s a debate that we’ll be having over the next 10 or 20 years,” says President Obama, and it certainly looks like that debate is set to rage on for years, if not decades, to come.