Free money is the only real answer to rampant AI

In the picturesque town of Stockton, California, a radical experiment is underway. Since February 2019, 125 residents have received an unconditional $500 monthly, no strings attached. The brainchild of former mayor Michael Tubbs, the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED) aims to test the impact of a universal basic income (UBI) on the community. With tech entrepreneur and UBI advocate Andrew Yang propelling the issue into the national spotlight during his 2020 presidential run, this small pilot has taken on outsized significance.

As philosophers, historians, writers, and Silicon Valley leaders increasingly recognize UBI as a necessity in a world rocked by automation, the future seems one step closer. But the perceived simplicity of this seductive promise - free money for all, a wave of the future, etc. - belies the complex history and reality. The truth about UBI is far more nuanced, rooted in changing economic forces, the labor movement, and the shifting landscape of technology. Tracing the evolution of this radical idea reveals as much about us as it does about UBI itself. It lays bare our deepest hopes and fears around automation. It surfaces philosophical divides on human dignity and the social contract. It distills our anxiety around income inequality and job insecurity. Most importantly, it forces us to ask hard questions about the kind of society we want to build in this technological age.

At its core, UBI represents a deceptively easy proposition - the government provides a set income to every citizen, free of charge. As basic income guru Scott Santens explains, it's "money for nothing." You get the cash, whether a billionaire or homeless, with no judgment or conditions involved. Since everyone receives the same amount, we bypass sticky questions around who "deserves" assistance or gets singled out for welfare. And guaranteeing an income floor empowers people to meet their basic needs. For advocates, UBI offers a bold solution to the indignity of poverty amid plenty. It puts spending power directly in people's hands. It allows them to invest, retrain, care for loved ones, or rest - no bureaucracy micromanaging their choices. UBI bridges the gaping holes in our fraying social safety net while affirming faith in human dignity and potential.

To conservative critics and die-hard bootstrappers, this sounds like a pipe dream - or worse, madness. Giving away free money? Guaranteeing an income to those who choose not to work? "The costs would be astronomical, the consequences Orwellian." At best, they cry, it's absurdly naïve; at worst, ruinously dangerous to the economy. The work ethic that built the world would evaporate overnight; welfare cheats and slackers would game the system. UBI threatens the link between earnings and effort, desert and reward, that underpins capitalism. Implementing it would entail dismantling welfare programs, slashing budgets, and imposing new taxes. The scale of disruption would be unfathomable.

But despite their objections - the idea won’t die. If anything, it has moved from the radical fringes toward mainstream discourse. Nor is this the first time UBI has gripped the public imagination. Versions of a guaranteed income surfaced periodically throughout the 20th century, capturing bipartisan support before fading again from view.

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson launched an "unconditional war on poverty" amid Affluent Society-era optimism. The centerpiece was the Economic Opportunity Act, which encompassed job training programs and community development grants aimed at lifting impoverished groups. But one rarely-discussed provision called for direct cash transfers to needy families as guaranteed income. Around this time, a radical proposal emerged from the University of Michigan: provide a minimum cash allowance to all citizens, akin to a reverse income tax. The idea gained little traction, but it spawned a series of field experiments testing guaranteed incomes.

Perhaps the most influential was the late '60s "Mincome" project in Dauphin, a farming town in Manitoba, Canada. All residents received monthly checks for five years to top up incomes below a certain threshold. The results were eye-opening. Hospitalizations fell, high school completion rose, and new mothers could afford to take longer maternity leaves. But just as striking were the intangible effects - "the emancipatory value of democratizing money," as author Evelyn Forget puts it. Women gained greater financial autonomy within marriages. Workers could take risks on new ventures and careers. The stigma around welfare dissipated in an actual "universal" system. Mincome highlighted UBI's unique power to affirm human dignity.

Its timing was no accident. The postwar boom had stalled by the '70s, exposing economic cracks: racial inequities, entrenched poverty, and the struggle for equal pay and family leave. Faith in government eroded after Vietnam and Watergate. Stagflation revealed the limits of manipulating fiscal and monetary policy. UBI emerged as a rights-based, people-focused solution divorced from the bureaucracy of welfare and market ups and downs. It was an idea whose time had come.

Until, of course, it wasn't.

As a conservative backlash took hold, guaranteed income came under attack from both left and right. Business leaders chafed at payroll taxes financing the programs. Unions opposed schemes to replace collective bargaining. Conservatives derided them as handouts promoting laziness. Liberals viewed them as undermining broader efforts for economic equity. By the late '70s, political will and research funding dried up. The Mincome project shuttered, its lessons forgotten. Big, bold ideas lost their luster as faith in government gave way to the market's invisible hand. UBI survived mainly as a philosophical exercise championed by fringe academics.

Then in 1986, just as UBI was fading from consciousness, the radical libertarian economist Milton Friedman revived the concept with a vengeance. In his treatise Free To Choose, he proposed a "negative income tax" redistributing money directly to citizens rather than governments allocating funds. To free-market fundamentalists, this was catnip: cutting red tape, killing bureaucracy, and empowering individual choice. Friedman's variant of UBI privileged dismantling the welfare state over poverty alleviation or workers' power. Nonetheless, it brought guaranteed income back into the mainstream, reframed conservatively.

The man who thrust UBI back into the center of today's inequality debate learned philosophy at the knee of John Rawls, the intellectual giant who recast social justice for the postwar era. Rawls proposed a thought experiment for designing an ideal society "behind a veil of ignorance" - unaware of your natural talents, social status, and position. From this "original position," you would prioritize political rights, personal liberties, and economic resources to empower the least well-off - because without that insurance, you might be the one starting from scratch. Rawls' seminal Theory of Justice revived academia's egalitarian philosophy as free-market ideology ascended. It inspired scholars like Philippe Van Parijs and Guy Standing to construct rigorous ethical cases for an unconditional basic income - at a time when politics would still have laughed it off.

But over the last 20 years, the ground profoundly shifted. The War on Terror, the Iraq occupation, and the Great Recession dealt sharp blows to institutional credibility across party lines. Public trust in government sank to historic lows as banks were bailed out, but families were left underwater. The recovery disproportionately benefited the wealthy, laying bare a "winner-take-all" economy rife with insecurity. Unemployment dipped while inequality, underemployment, and self-reported financial anxiety climbed. An opioid epidemic took root alongside declining life expectancies. The American Dream seemed increasingly out of reach.

It was against this backdrop that UBI made its 21st-century comeback. The advocacy organization Basic Income Earth Network counted only a handful of chapters in the early 2000s. But interest surged following the financial crisis, extending across the globe from Europe to Africa to Asia. In 2011, Swiss voters overwhelmingly rejected a UBI referendum, but the fact it reached a vote signaled changing attitudes. Pilot studies were launched in Finland, Spain, Kenya, and beyond to assess UBI's impacts. The concept gained traction with progressives as a solution to inequality and precarity and libertarians as a replacement for bureaucratic welfare. Silicon Valley luminaries boosted its visibility, framing basic income as "venture capital for the people" amid concerns about automation-driven unemployment. By the 2010s, UBI had escaped the radical fringes to become a fixture of mainstream policy debate.

Of course, the full implications of UBI divide experts across disciplines. Economists wrangle over its viability, with proposals ranging from conservative replacements for existing welfare to leftist schemes exceeding 50% of GDP. Some progressives caution UBI could undercut broader social safety nets or complicate the push for living wages. Libertarians debate whether citizens "deserve" entitlements absent labor market participation. But the combination of job insecurity and partisan gridlock lent UBI new allure. Far-fetched became plausible; implausible became possible. The idea found an ideological home across party lines.

And so, we arrive back in Stockton, California, an unlikely testing ground for the future. When energetic former mayor Michael Tubbs launched SEED in 2019, he embraced UBI not as a theory but as immediate support for residents living paycheck to paycheck. The guaranteed income offered breathing room to cover an emergency expense, seek more education, and leave a bad domestic situation. Much like Dauphin decades earlier, SEED's tangible impact challenges preconceptions. Recipients have used funds to cover healthcare, transportation to work, school supplies, and even starting small businesses. As researcher Stacia West puts it, basic income provides "the freedom to think long term." Security frees potential.

And the implications ripple outward. Guaranteed income pilots from Atlanta to Los Angeles repeatedly reveal UBI's outsized social benefits compared to costs. Hospitalizations decrease, mental health improves, and income volatility reduces. Opponents' fears of laziness and overspending rarely materialize; if anything, full-time employment tends to rise as people take productive risks. Much like Social Security, over time, the programs grow more popular, not less. Hard evidence challenges ideology.

At the same time, UBI today is no panacea. Taking it from town-level trial to national policy remains enormously complex. Optimal payment levels, cost-benefit tradeoffs, and funding mechanisms divide experts. Integrating UBI with healthcare, taxes, and welfare programs raises thorny transition questions. Some proposals exempt the wealthy; others aim to replace all other aid. There are reasons for caution as well as hope.

If Dauphin and Stockton offer lessons, the verdict on whether they should be adopted is still out - and the scale of possibility is greater than critics imagine. Fundamentally, UBI represents a statement of values, a social contract. It affirms an income floor below which no citizen should fall. It posits financial security not as a crutch but as a launchpad enabling our highest striving. And it stakes a claim that all members of society deserve a fair chance at dignified, empowered lives. Such aspirations seem radical only if we still need to remember the purpose of an economy itself - to serve human needs and potential. Our policies need to catch up.

Researchers fan out across town to document SEED's impact - how cash infusions affect health, employment, education, and financial security. Barriers once formidable now look contingent, and benefits are more far-reaching than imagined. Dignity and autonomy take tangible forms. UBI appears less impossible from this vantage - not lavish largesse, but a locked gate now open. The void of poverty is distilled down to sparse dollars and cents. Security is no longer fate but choice. Hard times made just a little easier for 125 of Stockton's own, carrying dreams no different than yours or mine. UBI gambles, at the bottom, on human nature's better angels. In California's Central Valley, that wager might pay off.

As SEED took shape in Stockton, an even more disruptive technology revolution was gathering speed - one that may shake the foundations of work itself. Of course, fears of "technological unemployment" recur throughout modern history. But this time may be different. In 2013, Oxford scholars estimated nearly half of US jobs face a high risk of automation within two decades. Driverless vehicles threaten over 3 million professional drivers; machine learning automates legal and medical roles. COVID-19 has only accelerated the pace of displacement.

And this time, white-collar professions are squarely in the crosshairs. In June 2020, professional services firm Ernst & Young unveiled its AI prototype: a text-generating bot dubbed "GLENN." The program can scan thousands of legal documents, then draft complex contracts - a task reshaping one of the world's largest law firms. As one executive put it, "The beast is born."

Meanwhile, OpenAI unveiled ChatGPT, a paradigm-shifting chatbot trained in human conversation that has revolutionized human-oriented workplaces, schools, and governments in a sliver of the time it took to build them. It can summarize complex topics, generate trivia questions, and even intelligently debate ethics - at a level approaching a human. And in November 2022, Google researchers announced the birth of Bard, an AI chatbot billed as Google's rival to ChatGPT. This new generation of large language models marks a quantum leap in abilities. They can generate fluent prose, poetry, and even computer code on demand - the kind of expertise once solely the province of human intellect.

In his 2005 bestseller The World Is Flat, Thomas Friedman popularized the notion of technological "flattening." His theory was that human ingenuity levelled the global playing field, spreading knowledge and possibility. Today's AI brings an inversion: human traits are commoditized and flattened into software. Expertise is distilled into algorithms accessible with the click of a mouse. AI output is achieved in seconds that once required years of skill and judgment.

In this context, how long can human labor retain its value? If cognitive and creative tasks become automated, what rests beyond machine capability? And as software grows exponentially more powerful, how many professions will AI reshape or render obsolete?

Proponents paint an optimistic vision of humans augmented by technology, freed from routine work into creative pursuits. But that presumes retraining keeps pace with disruption and sufficient employment options exist. Already inequality is reaching historic extremes in the tech sector. Studies project up to 73 million US jobs may be vulnerable in sales, administration, transportation, and even finance in the next decade. New industries constantly arise but offer no guarantee of absorbing displaced labor at equivalent pay and security.

This stark reality reveals UBI as a necessary adaptation to the machine age. Fundamentally, basic income offers income insulation against volatility. As software eats jobs, a guaranteed floor protects citizens from destitution. It guards the vulnerable from what economist Tyler Cowen termed "the great reset" - mass displacement with few fallback options. UBI preserves consumer spending power to stimulate new markets.

Critically, UBI also affords dignity to unpaid work. In a world where machines increasingly outproduce and outperform humans, basic income detaches payment from labor market participation. It places care work, volunteering, and creativity on par with formal employment. UBI enables purposeful activity even absent traditional jobs - an essential adaptation for the AI era.

In philosophical terms, basic income reframes post-work as the continuity of civilization, not a crisis. It contends human worth exists beyond mere economic contribution. It stakes the claim that our lives need not revolve around jobs to hold meaning. With machines liberating humanity from toil, UBI enables a more holistic conception of flourishing.

Finally, basic income offers a measure of shared prosperity amid mounting inequality. As software generates wealth at an incomprehensible scale, UBI ensures all citizens benefit from the gains. Mark Zuckerberg characterized it as "universal capital ownership." Collections of data from photos, social media, purchases, and browsing are all inputs to the algorithms driving this wealth creation. In a sense, each of us already "works" for machine learning, albeit unwittingly. Basic income represents a tiny dividend for that collective contribution to progress. It builds faith that the future will lift all boats - not just an elite technocracy.

The most significant argument for UBI may be moral rather than economic. It conveys obligations run deeper than transactions. That human dignity and possibility do not turn on market value alone. And it reaffirms an ideal that technology should serve humanity - not vice versa.

As Silicon Valley insider Martin Ford puts it, "If we do not find a way to provide a basic income to compensate for the jobs lost...then we will have created a world with a lot less human dignity." The choice is more stark now than ever: between an optimistic path where technology uplifts all or a polarized society of vestigial labor.

The machine age is upon us whether we choose it or not. But the shape of this new society remains ours to build. UBI represents a leap of faith - in human nature, shared dignity, and our capacity to adapt. Its necessity is no longer speculative but an active reality.

Perhaps this time, we will answer the call - and write the next great chapter in Stockton’s legacy.

Today’s technological reckoning demands nothing less.

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