A new report from the White House warns that millions of jobs could be automated out of existence in coming years. But it cautions against one much discussed solution: giving away free money.
The report, published this week by the Presidents Council of Economic Advisers, joins a growing body of work forecasting massive jobs losses due to automation and artificial intelligence. A paper published in 2013 by Oxford University researchers, for example, estimated that as many as 47 percent of all jobs could eventually be automated. The new report, likewise, forecasts millions of job losses in careers such as truck driving, as self-driving vehicles hit the roads, as well as low-skilled jobs.
Fears of widespread unemployment driven by automation have helped popularize the idea of paying everyone a regular lump sum of money to either complement or replace their earnings—an idea often referred to as “universal basic income” or UBI. Pushed by conservative thinkers like Milton Friedman and Silicon Valley investment firms like Y Combinator, such a scheme might be cheaper and easier to administer than more complex forms of social welfare that involve vetting people, and it could help people get by while going to school or working a significantly lower paying job than they had before the rise of automation. But Obama’s White House prefers to focus on education and job training rather than guaranteed income.
“We should not advance a policy that is premised on giving up on the possibility of workers remaining employed,” the paper says. “Our goal should be first and foremost to foster the skills, training, job search assistance, and other labor market institutions to make sure people can get into jobs, which would much more directly address the employment issues raised by AI than would UBI.”
The report advocates a four-pronged policy approach that includes more funding for technical education, an expanded social safety net, and, paradoxically, more money for AI research. “If care is taken to responsibly maximize its development, AI will make important, positive contributions to aggregate productivity growth, and advances in AI technology hold incredible potential to help the United States stay on the cutting edge of innovation,” the report says.
The Light Touch
The report is consistent with the White House’s previous “Preparing for the Future Artificial Intelligence” report as well statements made by the President in an interview with WIRED earlier this year year. Both the new report and the President commented on the need for government to fund research to help reduce the level of algorithmic bias baked into future technologies. “The government should add a relatively light touch, investing heavily in research and making sure theres a conversation between basic research and applied research,” the President said in our interview.
Jim Pugh, the founder of the UBI advocacy group Universal Income Project, says that UBI doesn’t need to conflict with the goal of training workers for the jobs of the future and, in fact, can help further that goal. “We see basic income as something that would enable a wider variety of types of work rather than a stop gap for people who no longer have job opportunities due to automation,” Pugh tells WIRED. “This is something that allows them to deal with a more chaotic work environment and opens up opportunities for new types of work.”
But the bigger question in the near future is how seriously the Trump administration will take the issues raised in the report. “When you look at Trump’s stance on jobs in general, he thinks that immigration and free trade are the things that have robbed us of jobs, not automation,” says Rob May, the founder of the human resources automation company Talla. “It will be interesting to see if, as time goes on, the administration sees automation as something that is inevitable or if they try to put policies in place that try to fight it.”
Pugh, however, believes that there is plenty of room for the states–particularly California—to get involved in responding to the issues raised by automation. “We could pursue policies on both the research front and smaller steps that can take us along the path of basic income,” he says.
The important thing is that the public starts to think about how AI will shape the future. “Whether a universal income is the right modelis it gonna be accepted by a broad base of people?thats a debate that well be having over the next 10 or 20 years,” President Obama told WIRED earlier this year. It looks like that debate is finally starting in earnest.