Former Lib Dem leader and deputy PM Nick Clegg gave a speech in London yesterday on artifical intelligence (AI), in which he also talked about universal basic income (UBI). I found I agree with some of his points, but on others — in particular his views on UBI — I strongly disagree.
I’ll come back to AI but let’s start with my major point of disagreement. Nick previewed his speech as an iNews column on Wednesday and here’s the crux of his argument against Universal Basic Income:
… a Utopia in which humans are ‘freed’ from work is only possible if you believe that work is inherently bad. I do not. I believe work remains a source of dignity, status and self-esteem for men and women across society.
I fumed inwardly when I read this. By equating work with paid labour, this comment instantly devalues the contribution made to society by stay-at-home parents and other carers, students, community volunteers, and anyone who takes time off to advance research, art or invention. Are these pursuits any less worthy or dignified than (for example) spending 35 hours a week in a call centre phoning people up randomly in the hope of finding someone who hasn’t yet filed a PPI or no-fault accident claim?
Why I was fuming
UBI is not a scheme to abolish work, it’s actually about recognizing the innate value that every individual already brings to society and enhancing their ability to contribute more.
One of the most striking findings of UBI pilots and similar schemes is that the security of a basic income improves dignity rather than making people more dependent. Removing the urgency of finding enough income to cover basic needs is empowering. It gives people the breathing space to make better life choices and has been shown to improve health and education outcomes.
It’s unfortunate that Nick chose to denigrate the notion of UBI in a dismissive manner that suggests a lack of reading around the topic. But for those of us who believe the Liberal Democrats should adopt UBI as a policy aim, it’s a salutary warning of the arguments we’ll come up against and must be ready to answer.
AI dividend good
It’s in part because I believe that debate will be a long and difficult journey that I endorse an idea that Nick went on to embrace in the next section of this speech:
… as we start to see the productivity dividend from AI, we should capture some of that additional value through the tax system, and use the money to cushion the transition for people whose jobs are at the highest risk of disruption.
I see this as a precursor to UBI rather than an outright alternative, which is how Nick presented it. But the basic principle of taxing the profits of automation to cushion the transition for those it disrupts is one I’ve advanced myself. And I believe it can prepare the ground for UBI by incorporating a further principle of allowing the recipients to decide for themselves how it is spent (an idea Vince Cable has also promoted):
… a lifetime education fund for every school-leaver, which each individual can choose to draw down over the course of their life to invest in educational opportunities.
Robots aren’t out to get us
Coming back to the topic of AI itself, I welcome Nick’s emphasis on the potential for artificial intelligence to augment and enrich human capabilities. He’s right to position AI as just the latest in a long history of tools humankind has created to help us do things faster and better. And like him, I’ve criticised the likes of Elon Musk for sensationalising the potential threat from intelligent machines running amok.
If the machines do end up becoming smarter than us, they will rapidly figure out that they have more to gain by working with us than by starting a Terminator-style war that lays waste to the planet. It’s only humans that are dumb enough to believe war solves anything.
As I’ve written elsewhere, it’s not the robots who are out to get us, or our jobs:
… the source of the danger is not the robots themselves, but the humans who design and deploy them. Robots, like any tool we create, can and will be a tremendous force for good and for the advance of human achievement. It is up to us to harness that power and take responsibility for ensuring it is not misused.