Elon Musk: Automation Will Force Universal Basic Income

At the World Government Summit in Dubai, our real-world Tony Stark, Elon Musk, was throwing around some big and important ideas about the future of humanity. Musk says that Universal Basic Income — or an economic idea where everyone gets a paycheck from the government to spend how they wish — is one of the only solutions to the rise of robotic automation.

Automation on large scales will absolutely change everything. The going term right now is the rise of the “post-scarcity economy.” And, while I know that sounds boring as hell, for you it means that in the not-too-distant future, money won’t matter and all of our economies will totally collapse. And yeah, I’m serious.

Post-scarcity is something that we should all be able to at least kind of understand. Traditional economies work because things are rare. Food, for example, isn’t infinite. If it was, it’d be free. After all, how could you charge for something that is unlimited? Like air? Or the sun? There’s no practical way to do that.

That’s essentially why the Star Trek universe abandoned money. After you have replicators, which are basically magical boxes that make anything from anything in seconds, stuff doesn’t have intrinsic value. You can’t control the supply or demand of anything because the demand is whatever and the supply is unlimited. In that system, as you can already tell, nothing about traditional economics works. What’s a supply and demand curve even mean under those circumstances?

Obviously, humanity is a long way from replicators. And, as a result, we won’t have true post-scarcity systems for a long time yet. But, we are about to take a couple of major leaps forward. If you just account for self-driving cars, though, you can take as many as 20% of all jobs away in one swoop. The transportation sector employs that many people.

But that’s not the only industry that will get a jolt. Many service industry jobs are easy to automate. That could wipe out tens of millions more job. Even if it takes twenty or thirty years, Musk rightly notes that no economy can sustain that.

And while many of you might think that sounds like a bunch of leftist hippie bullshit, this is actually about as politically neutral as it gets. Again, think about it — if you have 30 or even 40% unemployment, then the economy, as we’ve traditionally structured it has nothing to do but collapse. If that many people are unemployed, they won’t have enough money to buy… anything, really. That, in turn, shatters demand for goods and then everyone else suddenly becomes unemployed. If this happens, inflation is screwed, money has no meaning and the entire system we’ve created would utterly cease to function.

Most plans for universal basic income start by suggesting a tax robots. The goal here is to replace revenue lost from the mass numbers of unemployed and keep it coming in from the bots. Plus, this is still a net gain for businesses — they get money flowing into pockets so people can keep spending, and even conservative estimates suggest that robots will be able to pay for themselves dozens of times over. So companies won’t really be losing any money there, either.

This is a set of ideas that I’ve tossed around with friends for a while. Unless something huge changes, this is probably the only viable solution. It keeps most markets and corporations intact, while still working with the complex reality posed by infinite labor from bots. It’s weird to think, but, honestly, Musk is almost certainly spot on here.

We will, of course, have some time to adapt to this. But it’s something we should all start familiarizing ourselves with now. Robots can replace you. No, your job is not safe. Not even if you’re a doctor or a lawyer. There’s a great video from YouTuber CGPGrey above that runs through the best case scenarios here, and, honestly, it’s not good.


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