What Silicon Valley gets wrong about universal basic income


Kai-Fu Lee is the chairman of Sinovation Ventures and the president of its Artificial Intelligence Institute. He was the founding president of Google China.

BEIJING — According to my estimate, roughly half of all jobs will disappear in the next decade. Routine and mechanical occupations will soon be replaced by artificial intelligence and robots at an unprecedented rate across the globe. This enormous challenge has breathed new life into an old idea called universal basic income, or UBI, in which the government provides a steady stipend for each citizen regardless of need, employment status or skill level.

So should we blindly give $10,000 to everyone then? Absolutely not.

The optimists naively assume that UBI will be a catalyst for people to reinvent themselves professionally. But UBI makes sense only when Silicon Valley leaders project their own personas onto all the workers who will be displaced. Indeed, if we’re talking about a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur, his or her skills, entrepreneurship, experience and network may successfully help turn a modest UBI income into the next tech empire. But this most surely will not happen for the masses of displaced workers with obsolete skills living in regions where job loss is exacerbated by traditional economic downturn.

Free money given out to displaced workers may serendipitously help a few find work, but more likely, they will just move on to a new job that will also be eliminated soon. This is a familiar pattern we have seen throughout the workforce. The truck driver who once worked on an assembly line in a factory will soon have to learn, yet again, to become something else. Most displaced workers will not have the foresight to predict which professions might survive the AI revolution and therefore won’t know how to best use the UBI money to ensure a stable future.

Instead of just redistributing cash and hoping for the best, we must work together to find a comprehensive solution, including establishing new professions, values and social norms. And we need to retrain and adapt so that everyone can find a suitable profession. Here are five imperatives to get us there:

1. Guarantee subsistence. 

The first priority is to create and support programs to ensure no one goes hungry or without shelter and basic health care.

2. Maximize creative jobs.

Only humans can create and come up with new innovations. AI today cannot think outside the box, and it can only optimize problems defined by humans. Thus, in early education, we must ensure that the system does not inhibit curiosity, creativity, critical thinking and individuality. In middle school and high school, we should increase funding for gifted and talented programs. In colleges, we need programs that help students with creative potential learn to master AI tools.

3. Increase social jobs.

AI cannot express love and empathy and cannot build irreplaceable social connections – only people can. And unlike creative professions, which cannot easily be taught, people can be trained in a large number of social professions. Furthermore, with the projected trillions of dollars I predict AI will generate, consumer spending will go up and with it, spending on people-to-people services.

This means service jobs that require a human touch – social workers, therapists, teachers and life coaches – will be in high demand. Furthermore, new social jobs will be invented in which humans will serve as an intermediary of sorts between patrons and AI. For example, a medical consultant might help patients troubleshoot and give supplemental advice when using an AI diagnostic tool. Some of these jobs will even be highly paid.

4. Encourage voluntarism.

We need to create more volunteer programs to assist retired and displaced workers with little interest in or skillset for higher skilled professions. We should also consider compensating people who volunteer.

5. Redefine work ethic.

Everyone has a need to feel a sense of self-worth and self-actualization – that he or she believes his or her existence is meaningful. Unfortunately, the Industrial Revolution wrongfully instilled a social norm that self-worth should primarily come from work ethic – if you work hard, you will be rewarded. But because of AI, jobs based on repetitive tasks will soon be gone forever.

We need to redefine the idea of work ethic for the new workforce paradigm. The importance of a job should not be solely dependent on its economic value but should also be measured by what it adds to society. We should also reassess our notion that longer work hours are the best way to achieve success and should remove the stigma associated with service professions.

The coming AI revolution will bring about either the best of times or the worst of times. The outcome will depend on whether we choose to be intoxicated by naive optimism or committed to comprehensive problem solving. UBI is clearly not enough. We need to debate earnestly and experiment rapidly. Only then will this amazing revolution lead us to a creative renaissance.

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.