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U-B-AI: universal basic income and the future of work

The rapid growth of artificial intelligence (AI), highlighted by OpenAI’s release of GPT-4o, has reignited discussions about universal basic income (UBI) – a policy where regular cash payments are made to all citizens without any conditions attached. As AI starts to perform jobs traditionally done by humans, experts predict significant job losses and economic disruptions. This shift has increased calls for UBI as a way to provide financial support and ease the transition to an AI-driven economy.

GPT-4o represents a significant upgrade, featuring enhanced speed, memory, and capabilities like image analysis and language translation. Despite some ongoing issues, this technology indicates a future where AI could take on complex roles across various industries.

Geoffrey Hinton, a prominent AI researcher, expressed strong support for UBI in light of AI’s impact: “I was consulted by people in Downing Street, and I advised them that universal basic income was a good idea,” Hinton told BBC Newsnight. He highlighted a concern that while AI increases productivity and wealth, “most of the financial gains will go to the rich and not the people whose jobs get lost, and that’s going to be very bad for society.”

Support for Hinton’s view comes from a 2023 Goldman Sachs report suggesting up to 300 million jobs could be AI-replaceable soon, particularly in the US and Europe. An OpenAI paper also projected that AI could affect 47–56% of all jobs, with fields like translation, writing, and mathematics at high risk.

Critics of UBI cite high costs and potential disincentives to work it could generate

Proponents of UBI argue that it could help mitigate the inequalities worsened by AI-driven job losses. UBI would offer a guaranteed income, allowing displaced workers to retrain, start businesses, or engage in other productive activities. Philosopher Karl Widerquist suggested that UBI could prevent a “race to the bottom” in wages and working conditions, offering a stable foundation in a rapidly changing job market.

However, critics of UBI cite high costs and potential disincentives to work it could generate. Funding UBI would likely require significant tax increases, a politically challenging endeavour. Joe Chrisp from the University of Bath’s Universal Income Beacon expressed reservations about the approach: “Personally, that vision of a UBI providing lots of people who can’t find any job in the labour market with a secure income indefinitely, I find that quite depressing.”

Despite these concerns, trials of UBI have shown promising results. A study in the Netherlands between 2017–2019 found that people receiving a basic income without conditions were more likely to secure permanent work than those under traditional job-seeking requirements. The world’s largest UBI experiment in Kenya, funded by GiveDirectly, has notably boosted entrepreneurship and local economies.

The debate intensifies as AI systems like GPT-4o advance, highlighting the urgency of addressing the potential societal impacts. Scott Santens, Editor of Basic Income Today, questions the fairness in the economic distribution of AI’s benefits: “Why should only one or two companies get rich off of the capital, the human work, that we all created?”

Even modest UBI proposals could offer vital support to workers facing technological disruptions

While no single policy can resolve all the complex issues arising from AI’s impact on work, exploring and experimenting with UBI could be crucial. Even modest UBI proposals could offer vital support to workers facing technological disruptions. More ambitious plans could facilitate significant upskilling, encourage entrepreneurship, and expand the definition of valuable work.

As Chrisp notes: “Capitalist economies are very good at continuing to generate things that people can do to earn a wage – it’s just a question of whether those are good jobs or not.” Thus, the implementation of UBI remains an open question, but its consideration is essential as AI systems continue to evolve rapidly.

Ultimately, as Professor Hinton warns, without appropriate measures like UBI, the incredible productivity gains from AI might not benefit those who need them most, potentially leading to greater societal inequalities. Therefore, UBI could play a crucial role in shaping a more equitable and resilient society in the age of AI.


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