Technology entrepreneur Elon Musk has often expressed the opinion that AI and computer devices will become so effective at a range of jobs that the vast majority of occupations will no longer be required by a modern economy. To his credit, Musk has also suggested an answer to the obvious problems of unemployment that this will cause: the universal basic income.
He first voiced support for the universal basic income in 2016 and repeated his belief that it was inevitable at the World Government Summit in Dubai last year. Musk’s support for the idea is particularly interesting as he is partly responsible for the acceleration of a trend that will lead to widespread unemployment. His company, Tesla, is developing autonomous semi-trucks that could put one in five Americans out of work.
Musk’s attitude shows a commendable sense of responsibility for the social impact of his entrepreneurial work; something that is all too rarely seen in the business world. But is he right? Will a universal basic income or something like it become inevitable?
On the face of it, the argument for such a development is strong. The impact of AI taking over from humans could be dramatic and lead to millions of people suddenly being put out of work. In those circumstances, governments would be forced to act. This process is likely to take place at different times in different parts of the world, depending on the speed with which AI takes over, with countries such as Taiwan possibly introducing it before the US.
But it is also possible to see problems with a universal basic income. For a start, it will require a tax overhaul, which is likely to shift the taxation burden on to robots or their operators, and on to wealthy people, as those on a universal basic income would not be paying tax. It may act as a disincentive for people who could find work and pay tax to do so. And it could widen the gap between the poor and the rich around the globe as some nations may not adopt it for some time. By raising the issue, Musk is showing a responsible approach to the coming AI revolution. Whether he will still be in favour of the universal basic income if he has to pay higher taxes as a result remains to be seen.
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