Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Social Investment Stipend or UBI - One of Them Is Needed In The Age of AI

Image may contain: one or more people In his recent major article in the WSJ Review section by  Kai-Fu Lee:
The Human Promise of the AI Revolution - WSJ

We are informed that :

"Recent history has shown us just how fragile out political institutions and social fabric can be in the face of disruptive change.  If we allow AI economics to run their natural course, the geopolitical tumult of recent years will look like child's play"

He is referring here to the rise of reactionary, authoritative governments - not only here in the U.S. with the Trumpite Cabal, but in Hungary, Poland, and Italy as well as Germany.  For sure, no one in his or her right mind wants to see the ascendance of powerful and aggressive fascist dictators a la Mussolini and Hitler.   But as Jay Bookman aptly noted('The New World Disorder Evident Here, Abroad', in The Baltimore Sun, December 15, 1997):

"The global economy has been constructed on the premise that government guarantees of security and protection must be avoided at all costs, because they discourage personal initiative. In times of crisis, however, that premise cannot be sustained politically. In times of trouble it is human nature to seek security and protection and to be drawn toward those who promise to provide it. That is how men such as Adolf Hitler, and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin came to power, with disastrous consequences."

Those are tough words to process but they are invaluable as a lesson in not forgetting the past, or how certain catastrophes arose.  Lee and other authors, most notably Andrew Yang in his book 'The War On Normal People' make that case cogently and that the rise of AI in human job displacement would well and truly mark catastrophe . Or it might mark promise, if we get our economic heads screwed on straight.

Regarding the approaching  economic cataclysm, Lee writes (ibid.):

"In the coming years people will watch as algorithms and robots easily outmaneuver them at tasks they've spent a lifetime mastering. I fear that this will lead to a crushing feeling of futility and obsolescence. At worst, it will lead people to question their own worth and what it means to be human."

Lee is referring to the fact too many people, especially Americans - but also likely many Germans- see our personal worth tied to the pursuit of money and success. This is how a capitalist, consumption society has programmed us and admittedly it is difficult to break that programming.

Lee's thesis in effect, comports very much with Yang's and we already know the major inroads AI is making to displace humans even now.  Barely a year ago, for example, I cited a WSJ  report ('Firms Leave The Bean Counting To The Robots')  warning that AI -based robots would soon be taking over CFO and accounting work across the land. That would essentially displace all those humans currently holding such jobs and likely pulling down big bucks in salary.  The article noted:

"One of Statoil ASA's newest employees, Roberta, spends her days in the energy firm's treasury department searching for missing payment information and sending out reminders.  Her boss, Tor Stian Kjoolesdal, said  Roberta's heavy orkload would improve overall efficiency in the group."

We then learned "Roberta doesn't have a last name, a face or arms. She is the first piece of robotic software to work in the Norwegian company's treasury department - part of Statoil's push to automation, robotics and artificial intelligence."

The piece went on to note that finance execs at Nokia Corp., Royal Dutch Shell and Orange SA were developing their own Robertas. Also:

"Two thirds of large global companies  expect to automate some or all of their finance department tasks over the next two or three years, according to new research by Hackett Group Inc. Hacket's report is based on benchmark and performance studies at hundreds of  large global companies."

The reason offered for the changes  in the WSJ piece was straightforward , direct:
"The new technologies are designed to cut costs, liberate workers from time consuming repetitive tasks and - in many cases - reduce finance and treasury department employee numbers."

I cited Jim Hightower  in the same blog post, who provided more inisght:

"With corporations socking away massive profits and the labor market still tight why are worker's wages stuck at miserly levels? One big reason is that corporate boards and CEOs have their heads stuck in a dreamy future. Nearly every economic sector is spending vast sums of money on workers p just not on human workers.

While few Americans are aware of it, bosses are investing in hordes of sophisticated autonomous robots powered by a cognitive technology called artificial intelligence. Instead of paying a decent wage to you, corporations are buying millions of these cheap, human-esque thinking machines in order to take a shocking number of jobs away - well, from you!"

So at the very least we can agree the AI specter is real and happening now.  There are, of course, differences on what the scale of displacement will be. But on discussing the changes (during a 2016 visit to Barbados)   with Alan Emtage - creator of the Archie search engine, which preceded Google -  he made it clear that by 2032 there would be virtually no jobs left that were exclusively human -conducted.  "Possibly with the exception of plumbers!" he mused.

So the question, as Lee frames it, is: What can be done?   He cites the "founders of the AI age" and how they feel "a mix of genuine social responsibility and fear of being targeted when the pitchforks come out."   Also, that many have seized on the idea of UBI or a universal basic income.   Andrew Yang agrees these techies for a UBI solution and that it is a sensible solution to mass joblessness.

However, Lee doesn't necessarily buy it nor does Edward Glaeser who reviewed Yang's book ('The Cure For Poverty?' July 10, p. A13).  Glaeser takes the  über  'Debbie Downer' position  that UBI will be no great "catalyst to human creativity" as Yang claims.   He offers this bit of history instead as a cautionary note and a pessimistic check on any rank optimists:

"50 years of evidence about labor supply in the U.S. suggests that giving people money will lead them to work less."

To which I would reply, 'So what?'    If that's what they choose to do with their time, work less or not at all, that is their choice. The purpose of UBI ultimately is not to produce a next generations of Picassos or Einsteins, but for people permanently displaced from their work to keep body and soul (figuratively speaking) together.  To keep food and shelter available.  Thus, all the labor reduction citations Glaeser makes are really irrelevant because they dodge the central pout.  He also appears to forget - or maybe he never learned - the famous words of FDR:

"Necessitous men cannot be free men"

In other words, it is NEED or want (for shelter, clothing, food etc.) that defines limits to liberty not work per se. UBI then addresses the issue of need first and foremost, so as to prevent the multiplication of men who perceive they are not free - and so reach for the nearest strongman who promise them that.  Give them UBI - say the usually cited stipend of $12,000 per annum, and they won't resort to strongman,  fascist populists. Doh!

Kai-Fu Lee's Review article is much more practical in terms of solutions, offering the annual stipend - but with the small  volitional aspect ("participation requirements wouldn't dictate the lives of citizens") to actively engage in assorted civic contributions.   So instead of "UBI" he calls it a Social Investment Stipend.

In terms of citizen contributions, he defines three general areas: care work community service and education.  Adding:

"These activities would form the pillars of a new social contract, rewarding socially beneficial activities just as we now reward economically productive activities."

Indeed, the former are clearly more important now in a world that can hardly tolerate further growth which translates into more pollution, more resource depletion (including of water) and more global warming.

In terms of the details for each:

"Care work would include parenting or home schooling of young children, assisting aging parents or helping a friend with mental or physical disabilities.  Service work would focus on much of the nonprofit and volunteer groups - leading after school activities, guiding tours at parks or collecting oral histories from elders in their communities,
Education activities could range from professional training for the jobs of the AI age to giving classes that turn a hobby into a career."

The beauty of Lee's solution is that there is no pretense of generating an explosion in. creativity in the displaced populace. Rather, the same old service skills that have always been used (and needed in human society)  will also be in the age of AI. 

More cogently, Lee's solution puts  the kibosh on Glaeser's Neoliberalish- ranting about how such UBI-type stipends would trigger a "dystopian jobless future", i.e. of millions of wastrels, alcoholics and layabouts.

Whichever way we roll, we need to seriously consider implementing one of these solutions, and probably  before 2025 - if not sooner.

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