The safety of AI, the Future of Work and Universal Basic Income

08 Jan 2018

 Pictured: Sophia the robot, UNDP's first-ever non-human Innovation Champion

By Patrick Haverman - It is undeniable that at the macroeconomic level, productivity and efficiency take centre stage where our scarce resources need to be better aligned and optimally utilized. For example, labour-saving technology is a key reason why we can consume so much today. Industries such as farming are no longer labour-intensive; by assigning only a small proportion of the population to the task allows society to feed itself.    

Indeed, technology and Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) can and does make life more comfortable; nevertheless, based on LinkedIn Financial Services/Fintech survey of more than 1,000 professionals, the threats and opportunities associated with A.I. have never been more conceptually present than they are today.  

Perhaps it is time for policymakers to engage in serious discussions and evaluations about the positive and negative impacts of the A.I. progress. Will the 4th industrial revolution be beneficial for all, or do we have a small group reaping the benefits while the rest lose out? Is there a case to be made that inequality will rise?

In general, the threat from A.I progress can be categorized into three sets.

The first risk associated with technological progress is that, it might change our culture and norms in undesirable ways. Well, the development of smartphones certainly ‘eliminated’ many families’ dinner table conversations.

We pick up new reports almost every week of Robots being able to do gymnastics, or drones with sensors, AI and facial recognition, which can carry out targeted strikes. In fact, just as of yesterday, the Guardian released its new article “Robots will destroy our jobs” and many have heard off earlier warnings from Stephen Hawking and even Elon Musk.

The second issue is the potential modification in the distribution of wealth / income among rural and urban, different education levels and among different countries and how it could consequently worsen inequality.  While innovation may increase the total size of economic pie, certain groups of people may end up with smaller slices, even if society, as whole, gains.

Some have proposed that implementing taxes on the beneficiaries from A.I. deployment, could be the best way to tentatively deal with the rise of automation. The practical implementation however could be difficult.

From the above presented perspective, I wrote a blog some months ago on Universal Basic Income, a preliminary potential welfare system in response to the deployment of automation. Since then the idea has matured continually. Lately, we, the UNDP, launched a working paper and organized a second roundtable on this topic with the government, academia and other UN agencies, ILO and UNICEF, where ILO is reviewing the future of work which is very much related to the UBI discussion. and UNICEF has ample experience with cash transfers in development situations.

The third risk associated with the A.I. progress is the double-edged sword: “safety”. Recently a video went viral where palm-sized drones with explosives find and attack people. There is a strong call for regulation or a ban on “killer robots”, another tech CEO, Marc Benioff from Salesforce asked for the UN to assign a “special envoy on Artificial Intelligence”.

At UNDP, we just received approval for a new strategic plan and the work has been carved for the next 4 years. Our ultimate objective is to end extreme poverty, reduce inequality, and achieve the goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. And the new plan asks us to take calculated risks, while being nimble, because by being innovative and enterprising with forming different types of partnerships we can solve the planet’s toughest development challenges.

As the private sector is already moving forward with exponential innovation, I think the public sector should follow and the UNDP, in line with the new strategic plan, can help to explore the policy options for the future.

While UNDP named the robot Sophia as an Innovation Champion, the message behind having a robot assisting us is that innovation and technology can be used for good, to improve lives, protect the planet, and ensure that we leave no one behind. Soon we hope that Robot Sophia will make her appearance in countries with a significantly lower GDP then the world average to make sure that these countries also join the discussion, and make sure their interests are represented as this is a global discussion where we should leave nobody behind.

In China with a discussion on UBI, or as we in China can call a regional / local subsidy scheme, we hope that there is a small window of opportunity to do more research and start some pilot studies so that the conclusions and lessons can inform or influence the next five-year plan. The world is changing fast and policy makers should also get the sense of urgency, that options should be explored with a faster speed and firmer determination.

Hopefully the second roundtable on UBI has contributed in making this happen.  

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