Artificial intelligence can bring enormous prosperity and opportunity. President Obama knows that. But in an interview with WIRED Editor-in-Chief Scott Dadich and MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito, the president also worries that AI could suppress wages, eliminate jobs, and create new inequalities. As we build new forms of AI, he says, we must also develop new economic and social models that can ensure these technologies don’t leave people behind.
“We are going to have to have a societal conversation about how we manage this,” President Obama says. “How are we training and ensuring the economy is inclusive if, in fact, we are producing more than ever, but more and more of it is going to a small group at the top? How do we make sure that folks have a living income? And what does this mean in terms of us supporting things like the arts or culture or making sure our veterans are getting cared for? The social compact has to accommodate these new technologies, and our economic models have to accommodate them.”
In 2013, Oxford professors Carl Frey and Michael Osbourne predicted that machines could replace about 47 percent of people’s jobs over the next two decades. Their results were the sheet music for a chorus of pundits arguing that AI will decimate our society. The President takes a more optimistic view. “Historically, we’ve absorbed new technologies, and people find that new jobs are created, they migrate, and our standards of living generally go up,” he says. But he also sees that today’s version of that technological evolution means some high-skilled workers will lose their jobs, and that low-wage, low-skill workers might end up with lower wages.
In his conversation with the president, Ito suggests a possible solution: a universal basic income. That’s a living wage provided to all citizens by the government as a form of social security. And Obama is open to talking about it.
The idea dates back to the 1960s, when the US and Canada explored negative income tax. Now Silicon Valley thinkers have picked up the notion, including venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, tech guru Tim O’Reilly, and Y Combinator president Sam Altman.
In Silicon Valley parlance, UBI allows each person to be a “startup of one.” They get an initial investment so they can build new stuff. But not everyone buys this. “Now we talk about the ‘return on investment’ of social policy, rather than outcomes in terms of public good,” technology ethicist Jathan Sadowski wrote in The Guardian. “When social policy is evaluated using economic standards you get starkly different policies, different expectations, and different beneficiaries.”
Perhaps this is a chance to rethink and reorganize how people are played, better rewarding the skills that really matter. “We underpay teachers, despite the fact that it’s a really hard job and a really hard thing for a computer to do well,” he says. “So for us to reexamine what we value, what we are collectively willing to pay for, whether it’s teachers, nurses, caregivers, moms or dads who stay at home, artists, all the things that are incredibly valuable to us right now but don’t rank high on the pay totem pole–that’s a conversation we need to begin to have.” And that’d probably be true whether AI was in the mix or not.