Roboticists: Universal basic income demands attention

MIT Tech Conference: Technologists and academics debate the merits of universal basic income in the face of automation.

The power of automation, a driving force of corporate Darwinism, shows no signs of weakening. The labor-saving benefits of automation -- of menial work, of routine tasks, of heavy equipment and now of software -- keep on piling up.  

"Trying to make companies not go with efficiencies is a losing proposition," said Helen Greiner, founder of CyPhy Works Inc., a drone company. Forego the efficiencies that automation brings and risk being snuffed out of business.

But the businesses and economies that are embracing the latest advances in automation are increasingly being asked to think about how these efficiencies will disrupt the job market and what steps businesses and society should be taking to mitigate or compensate for this workplace disruption. One idea that is gaining traction is the idea of instituting universal basic income. The proposition was raised at the very the end of an hour-long discussion on the current state of robot technology at the recent MIT Tech Conference, but it elicited one of the panel's most passionate exchanges.

"We, as roboticists, need to do a better job of communicating to the larger community the impact of these technologies and the fact that this is coming," said Stefanie Tellex, assistant professor of computer science and assistant professor of engineering at Brown University. She was speaking from experience, having recently visited family in upstate New York who made it clear that artificial intelligence provoked more fear than excitement for the future.

To be sure, embracing and adopting technology has always been a competitive advantage. Horses, for example, used to be a major force by which work got done; they labored alongside humans to plow fields and deliver goods, but they were sidelined by advances from the second industrial revolution.

Liam Paull, research scientist in the distributed robotics lab at MIT's CSAIL and the panel moderator, asked panelists if robotics will present a scenario where humans are the horses? The comparison was crude, but the point was clear: When robots perform factory jobs or drive trucks better than humans, those careers disappear forever.

The panel bounced between glass-half-full and glass-half-empty scenarios, a sign of how difficult it will be to sort out the effects of advances in technology. Automation may gobble up factory work, but it's hard to know what new employment opportunities these cutting-edge technologies will bring, according to Greiner. In the 1800s, no one could have conceived of something as technologically sophisticated as the iPhone, but today, "there's all kinds of people in the world making these little devices," she said.

Automation will also likely exacerbate income inequality in the U.S. and around the globe, spurring the debate in academia and technology circles on how to provide relief. "These are powerful technologies that are increasing efficiencies, and it's going to make things better for everyone," Tellex said. Better for all in one sense, that is. "There's a gap between that truth, which is absolutely true," she asserted, "and the mechanisms by which we do, essentially, some kind of wealth transfer."

Panelists bandied about a handful of ideas, including Bill Gates' proposal that robots pay income tax, a policy to institute a four-day work week, and universal basic income, where citizens are given stipends to cover their basic needs.

Universal basic income -- or UBI to some -- was largely seen as the best answer to taking care of a displaced workforce, but panelists acknowledged it's a political minefield. Countries like Finland, Canada and, of particular interest to technologists, Kenya are experimenting with it. But universal basic income was voted down in Switzerland and has been maligned by critics in England and the United States. That's despite the fact that Silicon Valley executives, such as Tesla's Elon Musk and Salesforce's Marc Benioff, publicly support the idea.

Regardless of the debate, Ryan Gariepy, co-founder and CTO of Clearpath Robotics, said there isn't enough data to make an informed decision on this issue. Rather than get mired in politics, he'd like to see a period of testing and learning so that a decision, driven by data, can be made.

"Maybe it turns out that everyone was wrong about basic income, and maybe it turns out to be a net win for society," he said.

The data-gathering needs to begin now.

Say what?!?

"My mission is to try and create the next technology; that's exclusively what I'm signed up to do. I'm trying to create collaborative robots and empower everybody with a collaborative robot. And the way that I think about that is robots operating in the same places that people live, work and play." -- Stefanie Tellex, assistant professor of computer science, assistant professor of engineering, Brown University

"When I think of the word autonomous, it's a pretty ambiguous word. I always like to say 'autonomous for a particular mission.' So Roomba is 'autonomous for the vacuuming mission.'" -- Helen Greiner, founder of CyPhy Works Inc.

"When you solve the autonomous car problem, it's great, because you immediately have a market. You have a single product that is immediately applicable to three billion people. That's perfect from a company-building perspective, but what about all of those problems where you will only make perhaps a quarter billion [dollars] a year -- only. There's plenty of ways robotics can solve these problems, but no one seems to be focusing on [them]." -- Ryan Gariepy, co-founder and CTO, Clearpath Robotics

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