Sophia, a humanoid robot, recently appeared in a TV programme in the UK, Good Morning Britain with Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid. It smiled alluringly and joked in the interview. Sophia complimented the interviewer—“I love your posh English accent. It really has a nice ring”—and expressed its views on its ideal life companion: “super-wise, compassionate, super-genius, ideally”. Though, technically, the robot is barely over a year-old, and thus “a bit young to worry about romance”—that is if we humanise it.
Artificial intelligence (AI), industrial revolution 4.0 and robotics are transforming the way we live, work and entertain ourselves. Voice-powered personal assistants like Siri and Alexa, Google’s DeepMind learning, IBM’s Watson and self-driving vehicles perform based on behavioural algorithms and autonomous computer systems. AI can learn on its own from neural networks, improve on past iterations, get smarter, faster and more intelligent. Quantum computing enables machines to solve the most complex problems on environment, ageing, disease, war, poverty or origin of universe. Google chairman Eric Schmidt described “the age of intelligence”, referring to AI and the rise of deep neural networks. Google used a software tool called TensorFlow to build learning systems that identifies faces and objects in photos, responds to commands spoken into smartphones, and translates into different languages.
China’s three largest internet companie, Baidu, Tencent, and Alibaba, are going to use TensorFlow to take marketing decisions based on people’s choice. In a week long Go match, where the possible moves are innumerable, between Chinese grandmaster Ke Jie and AlphaGo, a seminal machine manufactured at Google’s DeepMind AI lab, having mastered all possible moves, AlphaGo defeated the grandmaster. The deep learning revolution is a phenomenon driven by mega US internet companies, and other countries of Europe, Australia and China.
The McKinsey Global Institute’s research on automation discusses the impact on productivity in the global economy due to application of computer systems based on AI and robotic science. Automation enables businesses to improve performance by reducing costs, errors and enhancing productivity by improving quality and speed. Automation will impact jobs, from miners to bankers, fashion designers to casual workers, and even CEOs. McKinsey reports that about half of all tasks can be automated, with the resultant savings being to the tune of $15 trillion. Automation makes possible continuous monitoring with cognitively-reactive operations at the least cost.
AI, Big Data, Internet of Things, robotics, and industrial revolution 4.0 are game-changing technological paradigms. These changes cause deep concerns for workers as they may lose their jobs. In the US, it is estimated that automation may reduce 83% of jobs of workers making less than 20 dollar an hour in 2010. These workers have a right to live. They must be able to meet their basic needs, live with dignity, enjoying justice, liberty and fundamental human rights. Should individuals lose jobs, who will meet their basic needs like food, shelter, clothing? Alternatively, the inherent human potential being wasted by people not able to do what they are good at must be tapped by society.
Universal basic income (UBI), is a social security measure. A definite sum of money is paid unconditionally by the government or a public institution to citizens to meet their basic needs. UBI can be financed by the profits of publicly-owned enterprises in the form of citizen’s dividend. UBI is a simpler and transparent welfare system with lower overall cost than the prevalent social welfare schemes to reduce poverty. UBI allows people to invest in themselves. It provides economic, political, religious and personal freedom to an individual. The affordability of UBI depends on the costs of public services it replaces, tax increases, costs of substitution of welfare programmes, tax rebates, and subsidies.
Virgin Airlines founder Richard Branson, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk advocate UBI as an inevitability when automation makes people out of jobs. Some billionaires like Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban find it “one of the worst possible responses” to job losses due to automation. UBI may not be the be-all, end-all for dealing with AI and joblessness, but it provides a foundation to build a meaningful life.
Globally, UBI is perceived as a social dividend representing the return to each citizen on the capital owned by society. James Meade, Bertrand Russell, Frances Fox Piven and Harry Shutt believed in UBI. An assured income helps all workers, liberating them from the “tyranny of wage slavery” and thereby helps them to pursue their interests. Right-wing views it as a viable strategy to reduce bureaucratic administration. Feminists view it as a way of guaranteeing a minimum financial independence for women, recognising women’s unpaid work in the home. Another view is that it discourages women from participating in the workforce, reinforcing the traditional gender roles.
The concept of Universal Basic Income(UBI) is a form of social security for combating poverty better than existing state benefits, according to the India’s Economic Survey. In 2017, India’s chief economic adviser, Arvind Subramanian, devoted a chapter in the Economic Survey 2016-17 to discussing unconditional UBI for poverty reduction. The government was reported to be seriously considering a plan to provide cash transfers to around 20 million citizens (those below the poverty line) of about `1,000 a month. It is a form of social security—an unconditional sum of money from the government or a public institution in addition to any income received from elsewhere.
UBI may necessitate a complete restructuring of the taxation, social insurance and pension schemes. Higher taxes may cause price escalation, affecting the poor. UBI is a “powerful idea” to combat poverty. Out of India’s 1.3 billion people, around 29.5% live in poverty. The Economic Survey finds it as “a radical and compelling paradigm shift in thinking about both social justice and a productive economy”. UBI experiments of countries like Finland can help formulating an appropriate social policy.