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Is the rise of AI the best argument for universal basic income?

A two-armed robot called "ADAM" prepares a cup of coffee for a customer at Botbar coffee shop on May 31, 2023 in Brooklyn, New York. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
A two-armed robot called "ADAM" prepares a cup of coffee for a customer at Botbar coffee shop on May 31, 2023 in Brooklyn, New York. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Listen to Meghna Chakrabarti’s extended interview with the award-winning authors of “The Expanse” here.

Could artificial intelligence replace hundreds of millions of jobs in the near future?

“Most CEOs and managers aren’t preparing enough for that transition,” says Erik Brynjolfsson. “The next coming decade could be the best decade that we’ve seen on Earth. Or it could be one of the worst.”

If that happens, how will people make ends meet?

“We’re all the ones who trained AI. We all made it possible. We should receive our cut of all of this productivity growth,” says Scott Santens.

Today, On Point: Could the rise of AI be the best argument yet for universal basic income?

Guests

Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, co-authors of The Expanse, a science fiction series  they wrote under the joint pen name James S.A. Corey. The Expanse was also adapted into a TV show currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Erik Brynjolfsson, professor at Stanford University’s Institute for Human-Centered AI and Director of the Stanford Digital Economy Lab.

Scott Santens, founder and president of the Income to Support All Foundation which advocates for universal basic income.

Also Featured

LaShell Thompson, program manager for Casa Myrna, a domestic violence hotline in Boston. Participant in Cambridge’s RiseUp program, which sends residents $500 per month for 18 months.

Transcript

Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: How did you come up with the idea for the stories in The Expanse series?

DANIEL ABRAHAM: I said “Ty, what happens?” and he told me. It was great. (LAUGHS)

TY FRANCK: (LAUGHS)

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) No, seriously! Because it’s so good. The idea that this proto-molecule comes from like an asteroid from far away and it just upends everything about humanity. And we can’t really handle it very well because we’re just really good at taking our political problems with us wherever we go in this universe. It’s really, really good.

ABRAHAM: That’s just history. That’s every major technological advance in human history. We’ve been doing that same pattern of the organism not changing and the structures around the organism being transformed by technology since we came up with like fire.

FRANCK: Yeah, I’m sure that the first thing prehistoric man did when he discovered how to set things on fire is that he started setting his neighbors on fire.

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS)

FRANCK: That’s just the way — that’s just the way we work.

CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. And…

ABRAHAM: This is Daniel. I can hear you. The other guy’s Ty. (LAUGHS)

CHAKRABARTI: The “other guy” being Ty Franck. Ty and his friend Daniel Abraham write under the pseudonym James S.A. Corey and they’re the authors of an award-winning, best-selling sci-fi novel series called The Expanse.

I’ve wanted to talk with Abraham and Franck for a long time, not only because I’m a huge fan of The Expanse, but because of a question that’s gripped my mind and will not let go: Could the rapid advances in artificial intelligence be the best argument yet for universal basic income? Here’s what I told the guys:

CHAKRABARTI (TAPE): And I thought, you know, one of the best depictions of this possible future that I’ve ever seen, is in The Expanse. And so I was like “’Ha ha! Claire Donnelly, my amazing producer, ‘Go get Daniel and Ty!’”

CHAKRABARTI: Which, of course, Claire did.

So this is the point I put to them. With the rapid development of AI and automation lots of great things will happen, but so will lots of disruption. A Goldman Sachs analysis earlier this year estimates that just about all work will eventually be touched by AI somehow.

And, in the future, across big economies in the U.S. and Europe, AI could fully replace some 300 million jobs. We’ll debate that number later. But it is possible that humanity may be headed toward a “too many people, not enough jobs” problem — exactly the future Daniel and Ty imagine in The Expanse.

ABRAHAM: And I was like, “Yep, here it comes. Here it comes. Oh, yeah.”

CHAKRABARTI: Some background: The Expanse is set a couple of hundred years in the future, though it’s not super specific when.

FRANCK: (LAUGHS) Well, we very carefully never say.

CHAKRABARTI: Humanity has colonized the solar system. Mars is an independent military power. There are resource wars in the asteroid belt. And, closer to the sun…

FRANCK: Planet Earth went through a near fatal ecological collapse.

CHAKRABARTI: After which the UN is in charge of Earth and the 30 billion people living on it.

FRANCK: Earth is a largely jobless place. AI and automation have rendered most jobs obsolete.

CHAKRABARTI: So to support billions of people who can’t get work, future-UN creates something called “Basic.”

ABRAHAM: Basic services are like, there is a place to live. It may not be in the city you want it to be, but there will be a roof over your head. You will have clothes. They may be made out of paper, but you will have them. There will be enough food for you to stay alive. There will be minimum healthcare — nothing heroic, but you know, more than you would have if you didn’t have anything.

CHAKRABARTI: In The Expanse television series, we learn about “Basic” in Season 2.

WOMAN’S VOICE: Take advantage of Basic income, group housing, medical services. Register today for a better tomorrow. (STATIC)

CHAKRABARTI: When a character named Bobbie Draper first steps foot outside the UN complex in New York City.

FRANCK: Bobbie Draper is a Martian, in the sense that humans live on Mars.

CHAKRABARTI: More specifically, she’s Gunnery Sergeant Bobbie Draper, Martian Marine.

BOBBIE DRAPER: (SLAMS TABLE) Not today! You hear me soldier?

CHAKRABARTI: That’s her from The Expanse TV series, played by Frankie Adams.

(SCENE FROM TV SHOW)

DRAPER: Marines, who do we fight for?

MARINES: Mars!

DRAPER: Suit up. War is coming.

CHAKRABARTI: By the way, I told Daniel and Ty that The Expanse has some of the best female characters anywhere in modern sci-fi, and that my personal favorite is UN chief Chrisjen Avasarala, played with relish by Shoreh Agdashloo.

CHRISJEN AVASARALA: Sometimes I f*****g hate being right.

CHAKRABARTI: Never has a woman dropped so many f-bombs that I loved more than her. (LAUGHTER)

(SCENE FROM TV SHOW)

(AVASARALA TALKING) MARTIAN: With all due respect Madam, where are you going with this?

AVASARALA: Wherever I goddamn like.

CHAKRABARTI: Anyway, back to Bobbie Draper, Martian Marine.

FRANCK: And so she gets this moment when she gets to just walk around on Earth and meet people from Earth.

(SCENE FROM TV SHOW)

DRAPER: Excuse me, do you know the fastest way to the ocean?

EARTHER: For fifty, I do.

FRANCK: So Bobbie had lived her entire life with the propaganda about Earth, and who Earthers were, and the things that they cared about.

CHAKRABARTI: Remember, in The Expanse, Earth and Mars are at war. Martian Marines believe that Earth is flush with resources, that people with jobs are makers; those on Basic, takers. However, there’s a scene where Earth’s leader, Chrisjen Avasarala, tells Bobbie that that’s just not true.

(SCENE FROM TV SHOW)

AVASARALA: Did you know that the majority of people on Earth don’t have jobs. They don’t work at all. They live on basic assistance, which the government provides.

DRAPER: I did know that.

AVASARALA: You call them takers, I believe.

DRAPER: Yes, ma’am.

AVASARALA: It’s not that they’re lazy, you know. It’s just that we can’t give them enough opportunities.

CHAKRABARTI: But Bobbie doesn’t believe it, until she walks around New York herself.

ABRAHAM: Bobbie resets and sees what the lived experience is on the ground here.

CHAKRABARTI: It’s grim. Overpopulated and underemployed.

(SCENE FROM TV SHOW)

DRAPER: So you’re a doctor?

NICO: I put myself on the vocational training list when I was 17 years old. I’m 52 now. Still waiting for my slot.

CHAKRABARTI: It was at this point in the series where I started to feel like, “Wow, The Expanse is really cutting close to the bone.” Which made that big question burrow even deeper in my mind: In our real lives, could the rise of AI be the best argument yet for UBI?

FRANCK: The Basic of The Expanse is not universal basic income. Because universal basic income is you give people money and you let them spend it how they want to spend it. In The Expanse, Basic is the services provided by the government but no income provided with them. Universal basic income treats the citizens as grownups who know how to spend their own money. The Basic of The Expanse is not treating the citizens like grownups.

CHAKRABARTI: In addition to that, though, there’s still the fact that the moral similarity, I would say, is that people are being given something.

ABRAHAM: They are being given something instead of just letting them die on the streets. (LAUGHS)

CHAKRABARTI: Yes.

ABRAHAM: So there’s — so there’s your moral question, which is: Which is more morally upstanding? Giving somebody undeserving something that they don’t deserve or letting them die on the street? What do you think?

CHAKRABARTI: Well, I know what my answer is, but I’ll let them — I’ll let the audience answer it in that very pregnant pause. (LAUGHS)

FRANCK: I also think that the reason you wind up with Basic in The Expanse is that, you know, you hear the conversation about universal basic income. And it gets very heated very quickly. You know, “I had to work for my money. Why should other people just get it for free?” I think if you’re selling the populace on a system to keep people from dying in the streets, as Daniel says, Basic is an easier sell. It’s like, “Well, we’re not giving them any money. They’re not going to spend it on drugs and pornography. We’re giving them a place to live. We’re giving them some food. They can’t use it to buy drugs.”

CHAKRABARTI: Mm-hmm.

FRANCK: I think that that becomes hard, how you sell it.

ABRAHAM: And it won’t be a good house and there won’t be good clothes and it won’t be good food. There won’t be a nice life. It won’t be pleasant. They’ll still suffer. So that’s okay.

TY FRANCK: Right.

DANIEL ABRAHAM: No?

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Well, my point is the future painted in The Expanse is a plausible one, precisely because of the technological disruption we’re living through right now. And to this, Daniel and Ty did not disagree, because some of the inspiration for The Expanse comes from their own experiences on the job.

ABRAHAM: I did 10 years of frontline tech support and the thing that I saw was the way that jobs got larger and larger and more and more duties fell to people and it became more and more important to capture intelligence and operations knowledge in systems instead of people.

CHAKRABARTI: Mm-hmm.

FRANCK: So I come out of the corporate world — first an operations manager and then later an executive. And the thing that operations was always trying to do is get rid of all the people. You know, if you could replace all of your warehouse workers with automated picking systems, you tried to figure out how to do that.

There’s a lot of internal pressure to get humans out of the system. Humans are always a failure point in the system from the operations perspective. And so just, I’ve always had that sort of sense that the minute we can get rid of all the people, we will. Because you know, I worked in a world where that was like an ongoing mission statement.

CHAKRABARTI: The reason why I have been a lifelong lover of science fiction is because in my mind it’s fiction now, but fact later. And so do you think that it’s possible sometime in the maybe not even that distant of a future where a scenario like this could actually come to pass, the “too many people, not enough jobs” scenario? So that some kind of additional assistance is going to be required to keep many people who once worked full time afloat?

FRANCK: Yeah. I mean, I think we’re almost there now. We’re getting close to that point. And the other thing that we’re seeing right now is a massive growth in economic disparity. You know, the upper class and the lower class have never been further apart in American history. So I think we’re pushing up on that moment already. You know, if — if the predictions are true and what we think of as AI — which I don’t, I, what we have right now is not actually AI — but if it gets good enough that it can replace a lot of jobs, at some point, we’re going to have to look at that and go, “What are we going to do with all these people? We have to do something with them.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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