Prediction Saturday Series
Today is the first of my “Prediction Saturday Series” posts. I intend to use these posts to put forward a prediction about the near future, e.g. 15 – 20 years from now.
My prediction for this week is the inevitability of an unconditional basic income; that is, that everyone will be paid a subsistence wage by the government irrespective of whether they work or not.
Tomorrow (June 5th, 2016), will be the first test of my prediction when the citizens of Switzerland will vote on providing an unconditional 2,500 Swiss Franks a month (about the same amount in US Dollars) to each of its citizens, regardless of work, wealth or their social contribution.
Opinion polls suggest the referendum will be heavily defeated, and my prediction will not hold up at the first test. That is perfectly understandable as the conditions are not right for unconditional basic income as yet; but in 15 – 20 years’ time, they will be.
Adrian, the Aspiring “Futurist”
As you may be aware, I am writing a science fiction novella set in the near future, to be specific, in the decade of 2030. The novella itself is called “2030 ET” and the premise for the novella is provided below:
- “What if you could predict the future?
- What if you do not like where the world is heading?
- What if you could do something about it?
- Would you fix it? Even if it changes you forever as a person?
- As a human?
- Do you have the spine to do what it takes?
- Do you have the arrogance to play God in these End Times?”
As you can see from the premise, I am very interested in the near future of our planet. Yes, I share the concerns of my protagonist, Arthur Raind, that there are various catastrophic and existential threats facing our civilization that are not getting the media and political attention they deserve, but generally I am more optimistic than Arthur that we will collectively address these problems.
For some reason, I have faith that humankind will pull itself back from the abyss, once it is on the very brink, staring into its bottomless, black depths. Somehow humans seem to come to their senses and make the tough decisions only when everything is on the line. Evidence: the Cuban missile crisis, nuclear and chemical weapon non-proliferation efforts, recent action on climate change (though soooooo much more needs to be done).
Writing science fiction set in the near future, in my opinion, is more challenging than writing science fiction set in the distant future. The further out you are writing in time, the more far out you can be with your predictions of technological and societal change. Teleportation, time travel, intergalactic space travel, multidimensional travel, having coffee with your evil bizarro twin in a duplicate quantum universe; all are feasible for a story set hundreds or thousands of years from now. However, science fiction set in the near future has to be based in current reality and requires a good awareness, knowledge and understanding of the science and technology under development in labs today. Extrapolations have to be incremental though some leaps may be possible.
I’ve been reading science news and analysis for most of my life. See my post on “Science Links” for more details. I was on top of nanotechnology in the ‘90s when I discovered Eric Drexler’s book “Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology” (incredibly, written in 1986!), which perhaps is a good 5 years before it broke out into the mainstream.
Similarly, I try to follow socioeconomic and political trends as well, and I spend considerable time thinking about the disruptions to the existing structures that may happen in the near future. For example, in a post later this month, I will discuss my thoughts on the impact of climate change. Everyone is aware of the refugees and economic migrants shown on TV every day as they risk their lives in rickety boats trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. Unfortunately, climate change suggests that such population flows will only get worse over the next decades.
Why Unconditional and Universal Basic Income?
Today’s prediction touches on another socioeconomic disruption that is underway due to the next technological revolution: robotic and/or software automation of jobs.
Automation of blue collar jobs has been taking place for over 30 years now as the following chart on the number of global industrial robots shows.
During the 80s, robots were first applied in large scale to the automobile sector. The reason for the growth: robots are more cost efficient than blue collar labor for any task that requires repeated physical activity; they do the job predictably and to a high quality standard; they do not get tired; they do not get sick; they do not require health insurance nor do they require social security contributions and other retirement benefits. They also cannot unionize…yet!
A study by McKinsey suggests that 40% of American jobs can be automated. The following chart was developed to estimate the probability that AI software will take your job in the next 20 years.
Given the number of software customer service chat assistants (bots) you find on websites today it is not surprising to see “telemarketing” at the top of the list. But did you expect to see “technical writers” (89% probability that they will be replaced) or “economists” (43% probability they will be replaced) on the list?
There are several jobs that are not on the list which are also highly likely to be replaced. My forays into the world of “angel investing” where I have studied some “FinTech” opportunities suggest that very soon software is as likely to manage your wealth as is a wealth manager. Let’s face it (especially if you believe in the Efficient Market Hypothesis), portfolio construction and management is relatively straightforward to automate. Fields like legal research are already being disrupted by AI and soon market research and even consulting will be.
Martin Ford, writing in the Financial Times, believes (as do I) that we are completely unprepared for the unemployment crisis that will manifest in the coming decades.
So what are the consequences of higher automation?
- Rising unemployment: some people argue that this will not be the case, they say the same “machines will replace jobs” argument was made with the industrial revolution (e.g. cotton gins replacing hand separation of cotton fibers) and the Internet revolution (e.g. online stores replacing retail stores and jobs) but that both “revolutions” created more jobs than they destroyed (the jobs created were usually the machine builders, operators, and maintenance workers). It is undoubtedly true that the job market will adapt, but this time there will be way more job destruction than during the previous “revolutions”, because of the scalability of software. Once a scalable AI / software is developed to do one task, e.g. a set of accounts, the incremental cost of having the AI / software do ten thousand sets of accounts is virtually zero, the only cost being the additional electricity. Of course, to do a billion sets of accounts, additional infrastructure (i.e. incurring additional cost) may be required.
- Structural changes in employment: education systems will eventually adapt to prepare youth for the jobs of the new automated economy. Kids brought up watching Twitch.tv on an iPad while snapchatting with friends on a mobile while enjoying a bowl of cereal will be better prepared for the new high-tech jobs created, which will require the ability to process an inordinate amount of information. Middle-aged professionals, in my estimation, will suffer the highest unemployment rates as they struggle to retrain. Many of these same people may be forced to take up several freelance jobs (providing on-demand services) to survive.
- Increasing income equality: the owners of capital (i.e. the robots and the AIs) will mint money while workers, both blue collar and white, will barely scrounge a living; initially, in the USA in particular, there will be a reluctance for additional taxation and redistribution of wealth as this is anathema to the American Dream, that anyone can make it big if they work hard enough.
- Social upheaval: when 40% of the working-age population is unemployed or not seeking a job you can expect an increase in crime and violence. The (over)reaction will be tough law and order measures. Prisons will overflow, again. The police and the State will be allowed unprecedented powers to put down the criminals who simply want to feed their families. The rich will live behind high walls, lined with razor wire, guarded by killerbots and drones.
- Universal Basic Income: finally, after years of war and bloodshed on the streets, the rich will figure out that the simplest solution is to pay out an unconditional basic income.
Hence, my prediction for this week is the inevitability of an unconditional and universal basic income based on the argument that it will be the cheapest and most effective form of wealth preservation by the elite.
Links to source material and additional reading:
http://seekingalpha.com/article/3973410-robots-existential-threat-capitalism (may require a subscription to Seeking Alpha)
Finally, I readily admit that the above is only a cursory examination of the issue. Though I would love to do so, I don’t really have the time to do a full research paper on the issue. Some of my arguments above are based on an intuitive understanding, or even a “sense”, rather than empirical analysis and logical reasoning. As an aspiring Futurist, I am as much Nostradamus as I am Malthus; not that I am trying to elevate myself to the level of the mighty mystic or the great economist, rather to elucidate on my method 🙂