Before AI Takes Over, Make Plans to Give Everyone Money

The U.S. needs policies now to support workers made redundant by artificial intelligence.

Many rows of identical, computer-generated desks
Illustration by Joanne Imperio / The Atlantic
Many rows of identical, computer-generated desks

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Artificial intelligence is coming for all our jobs.

That is a prevalent fear these days, and not one easily dismissed. The specific effects of revolutionary technologies are impossible to predict, and perhaps AI will turn out to be overhyped. But it really is different from past advances: The work it can do really is different; the jobs it threatens really are different; its effects on the labor market really might be different. A pair of economists at Goldman Sachs recently estimated that two-thirds of American occupations are now “exposed” to AI-driven automation. In the coming decade, the technology will wipe out 300 million jobs, they forecast. That’s one in every 11 jobs on the planet.

Here in the United States, an AI jobs revolution need not be anything for average wage-earning families to fear. If AI does not enslave the human race or destroy humanity outright, this generative technology can and should be a very, very good thing. It should lift productivity growth, increase our national wealth, and contribute to our commons of knowledge. Every person in this country can and should benefit from such an awe-inspiring invention.

The problem with AI is not the technology. The problem is not even the technology’s potential effect on the labor market. The problem is that we do not have any policies in place to support workers in the event that AI causes mass job loss. The good news is that we do not need to invent them.

Say hello to the universal basic income, a 500-year-old policy idea whose time has perhaps finally come. It is simple and radical in its design. The government would raise revenue by raising taxes. It would then distribute the money to everyone, in small amounts, in perpetuity, with no strings attached.

To understand why this might be beneficial, imagine our economy as transfigured by AI—not 1,000 years from now, but 20 or 50 years. (This is still a hyper-speculative exercise, I admit, but a useful one nevertheless.) Let’s assume that AI will continue to improve at cognitive tasks. More and more people will use it to kill time. More and more businesses will use it for clerical, administrative, and creative work. This will reduce employment in the “middle tier of white-collar jobs,” David Autor, an economist at MIT and one of the country’s foremost experts on technological change and employment, told me recently.

If that happens slowly, workers will have time to adapt, shifting into new jobs created by AI or into sectors impervious to automation, such as care work. (Autor and his co-authors have estimated that three in five workers today are employed in occupations that did not exist 80 years ago.) But if job obsolescence happens quickly, mass unemployment and wage stagnation are likely, with inequality yawning to previously unseen levels. Employees will get piddling pay raises, shareholders huge dividends. The whole country will become richer while workers become poorer.

But none of that has to happen. The government could capture some of the enormous bounty generated by this new technology and redistribute it to the people who supplied the training data that created it in the first place. A UBI would act as a tax-and-transfer program on steroids, correcting the inequality that AI is likely to gin up. The program would act as a social dividend, ensuring that everybody gets to share in the country’s new growth. It would also act as societal insurance, making certain that technological change does not damage our families and our polity, as has happened before. The China Shock, for instance—the large, persistent job losses in American and European manufacturing communities caused by China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001—worsened workers’ health, shortened their lives, and polarized their political views, all of which could have been mitigated by smart policy making.

What about work? What happens if we just need less human labor, full stop? That’s a cultural question more than an economic one. A shortage of remunerative jobs is not the same thing as a shortage of work; there is always something to do. (The crew of the USS Enterprise was tasked with exploring new worlds and boldly going where no man has gone before, after all.) In a world of abundance, we could all work less and enjoy life more, if we could financially sustain ourselves while doing so.

But in this new economic paradigm, we would need new policies to help us do that. And we would need a new mindset, one that understands wealth as something we all share and that prioritizes keeping each and every family financially secure, regardless of their participation in the job market. What worries me is that Americans may instead blame redundant workers for their own plight. Americans valorize work. We tolerate inequality and poverty. The problem is not the robots, then. The problem is us.