UBI and automation: is it viable?

Tech researchers seem to agree that automation will cause mass job disruption. What they can’t seem to agree on is what to do about it.

One proposed action is to implement UBI — universal basic income — where everyone has a basic, unconditional income without needing to work for it. This way, any job losses caused by technology won’t stop those affected from being able to afford to live.  

But just how viable is this idea?

UBI – universal basic income

UBI, short for universal basic income, is a concept in which every citizen in a population receives an unconditional, identical, regular base payment.

It’s also referred to as a citizen’s income, a guaranteed minimum income, or universal demogrant.

Universal basic income would apply to everyone, regardless of their means. That means no means test to pass or fail, and no work requirements. The payment comes from the government or a public institution. And increasingly, the rationale for implementing it revolves around the growth of automation technologies.

Automation and technological unemployment

The question of UBI and automation starts with the inevitability of technological unemployment. Or, in common parlance: robots taking our jobs.

For all the benefits of automation — increased productivity, increased efficiency, and increased reliability for instance — it’s undeniable that as new technology enters the workplace, it brings with it disruption, and the potential for job displacement.

Technological unemployment is a recurring theme in history. Automation and related technologies (such as artificial intelligence) are already disrupting jobs. But this time, it’s thought (however correctly or incorrectly) that the disruption could be for good.

And the rise of technology isn’t just potentially causing unemployment. It’s arguably causing a change to the job landscape. One that sees salaried positions on the decline, and gig-work on the rise. (Which promises fewer-to-no benefits and reduced job security.)

In short, in exchange for better, more engaging workloads, cut operational costs and increased efficiency, we may be looking at a future with fewer paying jobs available.

UBI and automation – the proposed solution

If automation and other technologies are set to create a world with fewer paid jobs, the question falls to how people will make a living. And that’s where UBI comes in.

The idea of universal basic income is that people won’t need to work to pay for necessities — like shelter, food, electricity, internet, etcetera. So, if there aren’t jobs available, people on UBI won’t spiral into poverty.

There is a question of how long UBI as a solution to this technological unemployment situation would last. In theory, it could work as the future — a long term roadmap towards a post-work society.

Less ambitious projections would see UBI and automation combine as a stop-gap — a bridge to support people while automation technologies settle in, to end when new jobs get created and there’s enough work for everyone again.

For the dreamers, UBI and automation conjures images of a post-work society. A time where all jobs are fully automated and we all have free time, with UBI paying our bills. But is this just wishful thinking?

Is UBI viable to begin with?

The first question to consider when it comes to UBI and automation is whether or not UBI is viable on its own — regardless of whether it’s spurred by technological disruption or not.

  • Is UBI even affordable?

For the UK, it’s thought that a UBI would cost about £67 billion per year. (Which is approximately 3.4% GBP.)

However, former UK cabinet minister Iain Duncan Smith disagrees with this assessment, instead suggesting that implementing a universal basic income would cost a huge £260 billion per year. As such, he has denounced universal basic income as “unaffordable.”

Further, he argues that UBI would act as too much of a disincentive to work at all — a problem which would hurt the viability of UBI and automation.

  • What would the impact be?

This brings us to the question of what the impact of UBI would truly look like. And to find that out, there are some real word experiments.

For example, Finland ran a two-year experiment between 2017 and 2018 in which it gave 2000 unemployed people monthly payments with no strings attached. The findings saw that UBI didn’t impact employment rates, but did reduce reports of stress-related symptoms in its participants.

Politics and public opinion

There are other barriers to implementing UBI that may also factor into its viability. Specifically, its surrounding politics— and the public opinion that must be in favour of it.

Scepticism revolves around the risk of upsetting the tried and tested welfare system to try the new, unknown UBI.

Unless public opinion is strongly for the implementation of a UBI, it’s unlikely to be viewed as politically feasible. However, the changes brought by automation could, in theory, elicit change in public opinion to view a UBI favourably.

Is job displacement lasting?

Another side to the question of UBI and automation is whether we truly need to worry about it as much as we think. That is, will automation disruption be lasting, or temporary?

  • History

Technological unemployment isn’t a new phenomenon — it’s happened before. For example, the alarm surrounding threshing machines, as agricultural technology temporarily displaced numerous jobs.

So, there’s no reason to think that history won’t repeat itself — that job displacement caused by automation technologies is anything other than temporary. So, the viability of UBI and automation is moot.

  • New jobs

Automation disruption will lead to more new jobs created (and it already has done). The need, then, is not for UBI, but for time to upskill and meet these new roles.  

So, where would a temporary displacement leave us in term of UBI and automation?

There is a possibility of UBI acting as more of a stop-gap rather than a permanent fixture in the future. That is, it’s a temporary measure to bridge the gap while people upskill and settle into the new roles created by automation technologies.

  • Fewer (and different) jobs made than those displaced

While it’s true that automation technologies create jobs — such as those involved with maintaining the technology — there’s no guarantee that it will create enough jobs for all the different people in need of them.

Similarly, one sector where jobs are least under threat (for the time being) is in caring and healthcare. But that doesn’t mean that everybody affected will be a good fit for such roles. 

  • Skills gap

Automation technologies take on the repetitive and the routine. This means that the jobs it creates and leaves available are those that need soft skills and critical thinking. That is, there’s a chance of a skills gap between the jobs available and the abilities of some workers. And, as such, technological unemployment could be long lasting — calling for UBI and automation to come hand in hand.

“For now, the problem is not a world without enough jobs, but one in which people lack the skills needed for the jobs that have to be done.”

– Financial Times
  • Catalysts

Events such as the COVID-19 pandemic promote automation use, with jobs lost due to injured economies and the subsequent need to cut costs. This accelerates the deployment of automation technologies — meaning there’s little time to retrain or plan for job displacement. The argument goes, then, that UBI would support those that have lost their jobs to the pandemic and to automation.

Abilities of automation

The other consideration to make when determining whether UBI and automation are viable or not is how much is being expected of the automation technologies.

Automation is not ready to take over all jobs. It’s not a replacement for humans. Rather, it’s better used to augment human roles — to take on the repetitive admin.

And that means two things for the viability of UBI and automation.

  1. Not all jobs will be completely lost to automation — they’ll only be changed, meaning there may not be as much of a need for UBI as suggested.
  2. UBI and automation are not at a state where a post-work society is viable.

In the future automation technologies may well be able to handle entire jobs. And in that case, the viability of UBI may again find the spotlight shining on it. For now, however, this is not the case.

UBI and automation

As automation grows, so too does the concerns of ‘robots taking our jobs’ — and the suggestion of a universal basic income.

Whether or not this is viable hinges on several factors, from public opinion of the UBI, to the abilities of automation technologies.

For now, UBI is arguably viable as a stop-gap while people reskill. But as the pathway to a post-work future, it’s not viable yet.

Useful links

Robots taking our jobs: the four ‘D’s to factor in

Technological unemployment: is it lasting?

Automation and the post-work society