Speaking with Wired editor-in-chief Scott Dadich and MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito in a recent interview, President Barack Obama reaffirmed his belief that universal basic income would be harder to ignore in the coming decades.
UBI is a system of wealth distribution in which the government provides everyone with some money, regardless of income.
The money comes with no strings attached. People can use it however they choose, whether to repair a leaky roof or to go on vacation. Advocates say the system is a smart and straightforward way to lift people out of poverty.
A growing body of evidence suggests such a system might be necessary if artificial intelligence wipes out a huge chunk of jobs performed by humans. That is the future Obama wants to avoid, but he said the possibility warrants a debate on basic income.
“What is indisputable … is that as AI gets further incorporated, and the society potentially gets wealthier, the link between production and distribution, how much you work and how much you make, gets further and further attenuated,” Obama told Dadich and Ito.
The president has expressed such concerns in the past.
In June, Obama told Bloomberg Businessweek that the US would need to redesign the social compact as AI plays a larger role in the economy. “The notion of a 40-hour workweek, a minimum wage, child labor laws, etc. – those will have to be updated for these new realities,” he said.
Several months before that, Obama released his February economic report to Congress, in which he offered data that showed a high probability of automation replacing the lowest-paid workers: those manning the deep fryers, call centers, and supermarket cash registers.
In his latest interview, he emphasized how the changing nature of work compelled us to reevaluate which jobs we want to put a premium on.
“Whether it’s teachers, nurses, caregivers, moms or dads who stay at home, artists, all the things that are incredibly valuable to us right now but don’t rank high on the pay totem pole,” he said, “that’s a conversation we need to begin to have.”
The size of UBI’s role in the future depends largely on how much the system earns widespread support, Obama told Dadich and Ito. It’s a concern others have raised.
A common response to UBI is a feeling that it’s unfair. Critics say giving people free money that isn’t conditionally attached to work violates the ideal of earning your living.
Some UBI advocates, on the other hand, say the system provides an even stronger American luxury: freedom. They say it unshackles people from having to make compromises in how they live just so they can survive.
But many people pushing for UBI, like Y Combinator president Sam Altman, who is launching a UBI experiment in California in 2017, take the pragmatic view. Altman shares Obama’s vision of an AI-dominated future. At some point, he says, AI will leave so few jobs to humans that UBI won’t be a matter of debate; it’ll be the only system left.
Candidates considering running for office in 2032, consider Obama’s words of advice for your future campaign: Read up on basic income.