Almost one hundred years ago the great economist JM Keynes predicted that within a few years, the working week could be cut to 15 hours, as all the basic needs of mankind would have been met. It was the 1930s equivalent of the current discussion on the introduction of a Universal Basic Income, a recent proposal for the milllions who will be thrown out of work by the rise of Artificial Intelligence.
The basic idea has been floating around for centuries, and discussed by thinkers as diverse as Thomas Paine and Noah Harari. Superficially, it’s attractive because it addresses an obvious problem. It is daring, counter-intuitive, and humane. Its logic is beguiling: the state protects us all from enemies via the armed forces and police-so why not from hunger and cold?
Yet once again, that old Devil whispers in our ear. “Yes”, he says; “AI has cost a lot of people their jobs-but isn’t that an argument for finding them different jobs?” To be fair, work has its own benefits for the human soul. There’s nothing like the disciplines of the work place for knocking the bad bits off of lazy, rebellious teenagers and proving that they’re not the centre of the universe. Finally-will all the millions still in work, and the owners of capital, actually be willing to pay for vast numbers of idlers to laze the day away in the park?
Wiser heads than our own have counselled looking at the various pilot schemes and trials which have been tried before rushing to judgement. In our time, we have seen many a brave scheme go down to failure. Extreme caution on this one, we think.
Yuval Noah Harari 21 Lessons for the Twenty First Century Jonathan Cape 2018
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