Tuesday, March 08, 2016

"Universal Basic Income"

Yesterday a brother sent me a link to A Plan in Case Robots Take the Jobs: Give Everyone a Paycheck - The New York Times
Their plan is known as “universal basic income,” or U.B.I., and it goes like this: As the jobs dry up because of the spread of artificial intelligence, why not just give everyone a paycheck?

Imagine the government sending each adult about $1,000 a month, about enough to cover housing, food, health care and other basic needs for many Americans. U.B.I. would be aimed at easing the dislocation caused by technological progress, but it would also be bigger than that.
My response is...well, yes and no. Bottom line: that's the right train of thought, but I don't think that it's quite the right track. We can do better.

I have favored a linear-tax scheme in the past, where by "linear" I just mean the familiar linear equation
or in this case
Say for extreme simplicity (with Congressionally-adjustable numbers) the government says: "You have a Social Security number? Okay, you have a bank account, and this one is for pre-tax money, like a 401(k). In it we deposit $100/week, your Supplemental Basic Income (small; makes no difference to a lot of people but a huge difference to others). Then we take 30% of everything you spend, i.e. everything that you move out of your pre-tax portfolio which can also include investments, savings, gifts, etc....if you deposit your paycheck into your pre-tax portfolio, that's exactly the 401(k) idea."

So, over the years, I've read Basic income arguments pro and con, starting with the ones that convinced me originally in Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom, roughly at The Libertarian Case for a Basic Income | Libertarianism.org or in Friedman's Firing Line interview at Milton Friedman - The Negative Income Tax - YouTube. I've found it pretty convincing.

Now we have a new kind of reason: geeks like me, developing the abilities of computers, are gradually making it (a) harder (at the median) and (b) less necessary (on the average) for people to earn a living in the traditional way. I've even written a bit about this recently, in the context of schools and the world that they're preparing our kids for, and I cited Pistono's Robots Will Steal Your Job, But That's OK | How to Survive the Economic Collapse and Be Happy, at HamiltonCentralOptions: SuperSchool
workers retiring this year at age 65 became high school students just about 50 years ago, in 1965. ...our total production, "real GDP", roughly tripled in that period... Manufacturing [jobs].... dropped from 25% to less than 10%, and we can expect the shrinkage to continue. The face of manufacturing is becoming the face of [robot] Baxter and his rapidly-improving successors...
Meanwhile, agriculture goes on "shrinking" in the same way: more stuff per person and much more output overall, but fewer people needed. ...

Does that mean higher unemployment? Not necessarily: it means that we produce the necessities of life with much less labor, so many more of our people will be producing goods and services, mostly services, which are not necessary for life....

And that leads into my current answer on the "Universal" or "Guaranteed" or "Supplemental" Basic Income proposal: we can do better than that. Specifically, the very information technology which pushes us towards a "yes" has a fundamental value for Great Gobs of Data; we can and should pay for that data, low pay (below minimum wage) at first but with increasing generosity as the years go by and we get richer overall. These are jobs for which anyone can qualify and make a genuine contribution to the Better World To Come.

What kind of jobs? Consider clinical trials as a model for social data collection. Everybody should be able to sign up for one of a large variety of studies, diet/exercise/social-interaction/education/long-term-low-dose-aspirin studies; these should pay people for their participation and ongoing feedback (via smartphone and associated sensors, as well as the sort of feedback that involves explicit clicks.) When an outcome is socially desirable, as in health and education, there should also be payment for achievement. In addition to these jobs, we should pay people for their perceptions, their knowledge, and even their opinions: Amazon product reviews add value to the world, Wikipedia edits add value to the world, YouTube tutorials add value to the world, this blog post probably doesn't but if there were a rating system with built-in rewards and AI protection against cheating, then the AI could find out if this blog post had added value to specific real people's worlds and it could assign rewards appropriately (both to the author and to the raters.)

And then we go off in many directions, of course...but we do so with more information, a broader base of understanding, than we would have had -- and we do so in a world where rewards come for having made a contribution to that world. Quite possibly we end up with an AI serving as the planetary village's Miss Marple, not the early-work gossip but the later version who sees all your public acts and some of what you thought was private, who can deduce a lot about your motivations (and in particular, what you gave up in order to do whatever you did and therefore what value your choice had for you). At that point we may simply drop our current insanity of "Intellectual Property" in which some of my thoughts belong to you whether I ever heard of you or not...

Or then again, maybe not.

update: An artistically inclined sister whose blog is probably more essential than this one asks via comment: "What? Art is not vitally essential?"
and that strikes me as one of the many questions that I don't want to answer for other people -- your customers in particular. My understanding is that many of them feel that life can be lived, or at least continued, without art -- and that means that art is a discretionary purchase, not "necessary for life" and therefore not recession-proof. Why Recession Isn't Good for Art -- New York Magazine
recessions mostly just yank young artists’ work off the walls. “If traditional art isn’t selling, galleries aren’t going to show emerging art.” ... In a boom, it’s cool to love art, see art, buy art. Art is taken seriously. A bust dismisses it as a luxury.
But my planetary Miss Marple would see that some people still wanted to look at, say, Raven With Shards, and you would receive credit -- spendable credit -- when they did so, even if they couldn't come up with the purchase price to own the original.

update 2, 20160610 A computationally inclined co-author suggests that I'm saying that "every human can get a job as a lab rabbit for AI", which is true in a way but
  1. I think this system would be workable now, with no more AI than we've got already: as I said, "Everybody should be able to sign up for one of a large variety of studies..." and in addition I'd try to reward reviews, edits, etc.... so I'd rather say that every human can get a job as a content creator/reviewer/editor/respondent.
  2. my hoped-for eventual AI wouldn't think of it that way. As I wrote more recently in A Small Note on Superintelligence Morality
    Intelligence needs to be attached to an actual person of some kind; a who not a what. This should not be called an artificial intelligence but rather an artificial person.
    .... The superintelligence need not be a biological homo sapiens, but does need to identify (correctly) as human, saying "we humans" not "you humans"; having human feelings, hopes and fears, including a feeling of membership in the human tribe. ...it is not a project of debugging a program. It's a project of raising a child, a psychologically healthy child -- yes, with parents, and preferably with siblings and so on outwards; a child who will realize that every h. sap. is one of his/her cousins.
    That's not the way we think about lab rats, or rabbits. (Although, in a sense, they are.)

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Blogger liza myers said...

What? Art is not vitally essential?

9:39 PM  
Blogger Tom Myers said...

See the update. :-)

3:57 AM  

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