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Should You Look Forward to Being Useless?

The challenges—and opportunities—of a post-scarcity society

Creative Commons license
Source: Creative Commons license

Can a robot do your job? Even if you say no today, your answer might change tomorrow.

Concerns that advancing technology will eliminate jobs and displace huge segments of the workforce have become widespread, and understandably so. Artificial intelligence and automation—from driverless trucks and unstaffed retail stores to robots taking your restaurant order—will transform millions of once-productive workers into a new class of “useless” citizens in the foreseeable future, predicts bestselling author Yuval Noah Harari. Add to the mix the processing power of quantum computing—a technology that could make tomorrow's computers 100,000 times faster than today's—and the impact on the workplace, and all of society, is difficult to imagine.

Many observers naturally assume that mass unemployment will necessarily equate to mass poverty and inequality, but there are other, more optimistic, possibilities as well. The rise of artificial intelligence and quantum computing could instead be seen as evidence that human progress is reaching a point where general prosperity is possible without the expectation that average citizens must be burdened with a lifetime of mandatory (and usually unfulfilling) labor. If so—and if public policy is crafted to reflect that reality—the liberation from toil that advanced technologies bring should be welcomed as a benefit of living in a post-scarcity society.

A clue that this way of thinking might be trending can be found in a recent article in Business Insider, which noted that the idea of universal basic income, or UBI, is becoming increasingly popular. As the name implies, UBI would provide everyone with unconditional payments to ensure that they have enough income for life's basic necessities. This would be a practical policy to directly address the realities of technological progress and life in a post-scarcity economy. If huge swaths of the population are now productively useless, then the system can at least provide everyone with a means of participating on the consumer side.

UBI can be defended on both moral and economic grounds. Morally, for many reasons (even some selfish ones, such as the desire for our own security and social stability) we don’t want large segments of the population living in poverty, so it only makes sense that we ensure that everyone has enough to cover the necessities of life. And economically, since basic income payments will in most instances be spent on consumption in the marketplace, the public expenditure isn't wasted, but instead is a means of priming the economy and enabling production.

A major obstacle in implementing UBI might be the popular distaste for entitlements—that is, overcoming the American mythology of rugged individualism—but one aspect of UBI that will silence such criticism is its universality. Unlike welfare programs that aid only those who qualify, thus creating class resentment and division, UBI would be more akin to the Social Security retirement program, which benefits almost everyone. The near-universality of Social Security makes it the most popular government program, and it's hard to envision UBI being much different.

At a deeper level, the UBI debate requires a serious public discussion about the true meaning of progress. As technology advances in leaps and bounds, such a dialogue becomes necessary. Where do we really want technology to take us as a society? On a grand scale, hasn’t emancipation from lengthy and alienating toil—and the freedom to do what we want with our time—long been one of the key goals of progress? Is it too much to expect that such prosperity might eventually be within reach of not just the privileged elite, but the general population?

Indeed, it is worth considering whether UBI might help society finally get past some of the obstacles that have made equality and social justice elusive. By ensuring that we all share in the system's benefits, UBI draws no categories and does nothing to divide the population, but instead sends a positive message of inclusion, togetherness, and affluence as a society. With public policy conveying this message, and everyone benefitting from it, at least some of the underlying tensions that give rise to social conflict, whether racial, ethnic, religious, or otherwise, would hopefully become softened and outdated.

Of course, we surely wouldn’t want technological advancement and UBI to result in a population of over 300 million people doing nothing each day but sitting home watching Jerry Springer and game shows. Ideally, emancipation from the workplace would occur in an environment that understands the dangers of anti-intellectualism, where people would naturally use their time and resources to nurture healthy relationships and to promote education and creativity, whether in the arts, music, science, or elsewhere.

If the struggle for subsistence has defined the human condition for most of history, a post-scarcity world should offer not just material security, but the opportunity for actualization and enlightenment as well.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter: @ahadave

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