What Happens When Robots Get All the Jobs?

Fans of the show South Park know the episode where the angry townspeople chant “Dem robots took our jobs! Took err jerbs!” But regardless of whether you call it a job or a jerb, the anxiety over losing one’s livelihood someday to automation of one sort or another is very real. Nearly half of today’s U.S. workers are at risk of losing their jobs to a robot or software within the next 20 years, according to a 2013 study by researchers at the University of Oxford. It’s not just truck drivers and factory workers who are at risk: About one-third of 1,700 managers fear being replaced by “intelligent machines,” finds an Accenture  study titled Managers and Machines, Unite!

Robot typing on keyboard
Journalists could certainly be replaced by robots …

Pundits say, not to fear: The rise of the robots will lead to other jobs opening up in areas we haven’t even thought of today. But what if they’re wrong? Automation could well lead to massive numbers of people with no employment opportunities, with societal upheaval sure to follow. Avoiding scenarios like that may require “universal basic income,” writes New York Times technology columnist Farhad Manjoo.

With UBI, people would receive a check from the government each month to cover their basic living expenses. The theory is that “machine intelligence will produce so much economic surplus that we could collectively afford to liberate much of humanity from both labor and suffering,” writes Manjoo.

It’s not just Bernie Sanders supporters who may find this appealing: The idea has support among some conservative economists as well, he notes.  Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley tech incubator, plans to spend “tens of millions” of dollars on research examining what life might be like under U.B.I. What would people do — would they become more entrepreneurial, would they goof off, pursue meaningful activities? How would it affect people if their ability to sustain themselves was no longer tied to having a job?

Albert Wenger, a venture capitalist and a proponent of U.B.I., told Manjoo that U.B.I. could usher in the possibility of people accomplishing even greater things than we can currently imagine today.:

I think it’s a bad use of a human to spend 20 years of their life driving a truck back and forth across the United States. That’s not what we aspire to do as humans — it’s a bad use of a human brain — and automation and basic income is a development that will free us to do lots of incredible things that are more aligned with what it means to be human.