Regina Saphier: Futuristically Speaking

Regina Saphier: Futuristically Speaking

From robot-like human workers to human-like working robots…

I want my readers to know that my support for an Unconditional Basic Income does not come without a million questions regarding our human future. So, below, partly in response to a thoughtful comment that I received via WordPress upon publishing my Unconditional Basic Income post, I crafted this post here, contemplating our near and our distant futures, virtual currencies and the ever more obvious obsoleteness of human work as we know it. In this quick essay I am going to move back-and-forth between our near and our distant futures, and will be listing the related questions and issues. Nothing is black and white in that future.

Your (the commenter’s) points are perfectly valid. We have to keep thinking about how the UBI (the Unconditional Basic Income) could work in different countries and what the related issues are, including (digital) currencies. However, let’s state that we are talking about the basics and dignity. Scarcity (or rarity as you put it) won’t be an issue when it comes to basics when technologies (robots, nanotechnology, biotechnology, machines and algorithms in general) permit humanity to produce those basics for everyone alive virtually for free, and with minimal human input.

What is hard to answer is this: When most people are no longer needed in the long run to work, what is going to motivate most people to make an effort for anything, to become anything, or to do anything? Because today in developed countries approximately 40% of people work for money (are employed), the rest either are unemployed, married or are children (these people are dependent), or used to work for money (used to be employed or used to be married to someone who used to work) and are now getting a pension. For me it is not even the feasibility of the UBI… and not even people’s abilities that brings up question marks.

Am I naive?

The other day I have been watching a film and there were young and old people playing bingo during a church community event in the US… And I stopped to ask: Is this the future of most people with no intellectual challenges and a basic income? Am I naive to think that most people could enjoy intellectual challenges? To me it is natural to ask questions and come up with possible answers or to tell stories… I even believe that a MOOC based high quality mass education online will make more people creative and smart, and that will lead to better answers and better solutions. I believe that everyone who is cognitively appropriately functional (believe it or not: the majority of humanity) is able to learn to read and write and engage in intellectually and artistically productive activities and learning. People are not born stupid. People are kept in the dark by lack of education or by bad education. This will gradually change as quality education will be available to everyone for free. It is already happening. The best example is Coursera.

Are consumers contributing anything?

But what about those who don’t want to do anything? Or what about those who are smart, not necessarily artistic or expressive but unnecessary as workers in the economic cycle in the future? Is their only contribution being a consumer? Is that a contribution? If VAT is used as the source of UBI in that case even that is a possibility. There are people like this even today. These people spend other people’s money. But what about people like this by the billions? This is the very distant future, not our future. Yet we should keep thinking about this. What happens to these people? You mentioned acting in good faith… Are these people even capable of acting in good faith or are these individuals only mindless spenders? In that yet to be built future what does it mean to act in good faith? There are many questions to be asked and to be answered.

A new kind of economics

Futuristically speaking, in the near future, possibly in our personal future, when (and where) there is no shortage of basic goods that are necessary for a good life, and when the sharing economy is generally accepted, traditional currency has less value and exchange of skills, knowledge and creative abilities might become more interesting and a digital, virtual currency is perfect for measuring that exchange. I believe that bitcoin is interesting beyond its simple monetary features… it is interesting because it is able to directly encapsulate your intellectual performance into the virtual shape of a digital currency. Add UBI to this mix in digital currency and you have the basic components of a new kind of economics.

The Missing Temple of Human Dignity

Social media presence, our peer reviewed work, our online education, our influence on others, our good standing in the virtual public space will be a major part of our valuation in the future. Imagine if I could promote my blog with my digital UBI and my readers could click to send me extra bitcoins or some other virtual currency that could help me pay for my food, my electricity, my travels… Peer content rewarded directly by peer consumers of my intellectual input. No paypal, no bank transfer, just direct virtual reward for valued efforts. A digital barter. It only leaves the virtual space in the form of me being able to switch on the light and my laptop… or I could have a wish list online and people could purchase necessities in exchange for my intellectual input. I am posting quality blogs, readers learn, and people can send me “bits” of a new plant… “bits” of a pillow… a coupon for shoes… pay a portion of my electricity bill along with many other readers… things that I listed as needed. This is global micro crowdfunding, if you like. And everyone is fine. Unconditional Basic Dignity… as you put it… I believe in that too. It should be part of the basic community “hygiene”. I don’t need money, I need to turn my intellectual input into goods and services to live with dignity. I believe today the financial system and the religious establishment are the temples of money, and there is no temple of human dignity.

While people keep criticizing an Unconditional Basic Income as the perceived “lazy maker” of this century, there are others who find it bizarre that free work effort is taken for granted. I find the acceptance of free work without any return outrageous when someone does not have the financial basics to be able to work without financial compensation. I stopped my TED volunteer activities because I felt I was giving more to this small country that speaks Hungarian than I was gaining with my quality work within this society… the process made me feel used after a while, so I stopped (and also because of the grotesque decisions made by an overpaid TED employee a few years ago).

Asking people to work for free is exploitation when people have no income

Recently I outlined an idea for TED for example in my “Weapons of Mass Construction” blog note to make it possible for TED Open Translation Project volunteers (translators and reviewers) to earn money for their translations when they need income (because many do need and don’t have income). There are people who can afford to donate money and to donate work efforts to TED, but others “donate” work efforts while jobless and without independent income. And in some countries there is no limit to free work that people expect you to do. Samasource helps multinationals to “donate paid work” to poor countries! TED could also be a channel of “paid work donation”. It is unfair in my opinion that people work for TED for free while having no independent income of their own. It is exploitation in a way. Not the same when someone has an income or an estate, lives well and works for free as a hobby. Some people translate TED talks because their abilities are not used by their own communities and these people still want to remain intellectually active, want to learn and improve. These are often highly capable, diligent and jobless people. Their joblessness is a structural problem of the job markets, and has nothing to do with personal ability or inability to work. (Soon by the way there will no longer be a need for human translation… note: speech transcription can now be done by computers with very little human intervention…) There is volunteer inequality in this process that nobody appears to address. If all people had an Unconditional Basic Income, even this volunteer inequality would not exist.

Many people sadly assume that if you work you earn an income and that this is the only way and that it is always true. Less people are able to imagine that if you have an income then you will work on things that matter based on your initiative and your diligence (based on inner motivation). We are up against the limitations of human imagination and experiences, NOT against economics. It is not economics that defines us. We are the ones creating and defining economics with our collective imagination.

By 2050 only less than 10% of the human translators will be necessary

Again, the need for volunteer translators and paid translators might not exist in ten years at all… Let’s say that compared to 1950, in 2050 only less than 10% of the human translators will be necessary, but only to review machine transcripts and translations. What goals can you give people when intellectual challenges like a translation or article writing will be gone and most translator activities will be gone too, along with their income… Let’s say that everyone would have an independent income (UBI) and could decide what to do. But what do you do, when your abilities are no longer needed to sustain you, your loved ones, your community, production and in an extreme case: human culture? So, what I am saying is that not only will you not need to work for money, but most of us won’t be needed for work to sustain humanity. Over 90% of human beings might be without a paid job by 2050. It is a possibility. So, what will we be doing with billions of Coursera and MOOC educated citizens with no jobs? And there will be new technologies for high quality mass education by that date… and those technologies will require less and less human input.

Back to the near future

If our social media presence would carry our social and intellectual value as well, we could benefit from virtual currencies on top of our UBI via peer reward for our community efforts in the virtual space and in the so called “real world” too. I am fine with that. But what is your goal to realize during your lifetime if you no longer have to work for money… and if you no longer have to go to an office where other people work too? You won’t find any job advertisements connected to an income… in a possible future. How will you be part of a community? Remember, in the past we used to work on land, on farms, only later did people end up in factories… and now we envision a future without a central workplace. I can handle my freedom… How about you? Is it possible that less than 10% of humanity is enough to create the conditions of full social wellbeing? Do you start focusing on your family? Bringing up happy children? But for what? To make them unemployed smart people who paint marvelously and write brilliantly in a world where machines are able to paint and write just as well? Or could it be that losing interest in our lives on Earth is the natural trigger for a new goal…? Could it be that it is how people start feeling motivated to leave this planet for ever and populate other planets? Could this be the natural process if we manage to migrate before destroying ourselves on this planet? I hope that we don’t end up in an Idiocracy… just because we don’t need to face the challenges of sustaining human life and culture as we used to. I want to believe in an optimum case scenario at least in the near future. Remember: We make any of those futures and we must adapt! Those better be humanistic and well planned futures.

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3 Comments on “Regina Saphier: Futuristically Speaking”

  1. It is an interesting scenario – 90% of the population without a job.
    You and I are part of academia – I know that many of my old school friends are happy with working on the factory floor and probably will not bother to take a higher level education. Well that is at least in todays world. If there are no jobs at this level I simply dont know what they would do. Mayby the result will be an increase in artisans and artistic creation. Mayby the world will be overrun be neo-Luddites.

  2. E.S. Michelson says:

    Regina –
    Let me disagree with some points you make as a priori.
    1) You wrote; “Scarcity (or rarity as you put it) won’t be an issue when it comes to basics when technologies (robots, nanotechnology, biotechnology, machines and algorithms in general) permit humanity to produce those basics for everyone alive virtually for free . . .” I do not see that day coming very soon, especially here in the US. We are just not that advanced and infrastructure is too decrepit. Yes, factory workers and even so-called knowledge workers are at risk, but people will still be needed for many, many tasks. In fact, some forms of skilled workers (but not necessarily with college level degrees) come at a premium, for example good auto mechanics. It will be some time before machines are self healing. But, to your point, increasing productivity puts a lot of pressure on the workforce. So what is to become of them?
    2) You wrote: “I believe that bitcoin is interesting beyond its simple monetary features… it is interesting because it is able to directly encapsulate your intellectual performance into the virtual shape of a digital currency.” I think that would be the case whether it is USD,HUF or bitcoins. And, more likely, payment by bitcoin would become a another way to underpay in a freelance economy rather than offer fair trade payment for good work. We see that beginning to happen now with freelance job sites where people accept $25 to write 500 word press releases. That is not too much different than your unhappy experience with TED.
    3) Translators are still needed. The last three sentences above were translated into Hungarian and back into English: “And what is more likely, Bitcoin payment will be another way to get at the bottom instead of a freelance economy fair trade offer good salary job. We see that we have now started a freelance job sites, where people accept $ 25 to write 500 word press releases. It is not too much different than the TED experience dissatisfied.” Some good word matches for sure- and you have to hand it to Google. But,I will hire you for my Hungarian to English translations when understanding is crucial. Otherwise I will use Google and load my work with disclaimers, starting with “Everything after this sentence may be wrong.” Indeed, speech recognition software are now being routinely used top transcribe doctors’ notes on patient visits. The transcriptions are terrible and require that a human editor listen to the doctor and fix the transcription. Of course, the speech recognition replaced somewhat higher payed transcribers, so here we have the worst of both worlds- a crappy technology and a lower payed, highly skilled worker cleaning up the mess.

    But – My quibbles with your assumptions, are, quite frankly, minor and only serve to lubricate my neurons so I can get to the point. I think by and large you are in fact on the right track with your thinking. We do not know what the effect of implementing UBI would be. We do not know if intellect will be liberated or stifled. If I had no financial worries for my working and late life retirement I would spend my days growing trees, grasses, fruits, flowers and vegetables. I would take pictures of all the things I love. I would spend countless hours commenting on blog posts by smart people I want to affiliate myself with. I would give away what I could and keep what I need. Yes, I would play Bingo! But is that would everybody would do?

    As you say, perhaps other people would just shop. But that is inefficient because the public wealth is lost to accumulated profit. That is too say, I am thinking that the VAT going back for redistribution along with the benefit gained by production, distribution and purchasing/consumption would be negated by profit unproductively invested. That’s happening now, even without a minimal UBI.

    Others would drink or do other drugs out of depression. Even my golden hued thinking about how I would spend my days could very likely output less than the input provided to me from a resource perspective. People are a widely variable lot. I am not sure there is a single solution for the provision of basic human needs. In the USA there is a negative tax (payment) called the Earned Income Credit. it is a work incentive payable at tax time. It has been found to be very efficient at promoting the movement of money through communities and generating some wealth. But it is not UBI.

    On the other hand, we also have Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability (SSD) are both UBI intended for the disabled and elderly. But, it’s not really working as intended as middle aged people drop out of the workforce and apply especially for SSD since they cannot otherwise find a job. At that point they lower their expectations for a productive life in order to stay on the assistance In fact, here in the US, the implementation of UBI is sort of an admission of personal failure given our culture that celebrates the “rugged individualist.” When I was a student I applied for public assistance to buy food (food stamps) because I made very little money. I think I used the program for about two weeks. I was not comfortable taking public assistance.

    Ultimately, UBI or not, we need to fix the middle which has been hollowed out. You have seen the charts, I’m sure, that shows income inequality as high or higher than it was at any time since 1929. UBI may be part of the answer. I am willing to give it a go. But it won’t work everywhere. It will need to be a mix of things such as government works programs, cash payments, small business assistance, and, unfortunately, redistribution of wealth through fairer taxation schemes.

    Forgive me if I have missed some of your key points above. My understanding is often times limited.


    • Regina says:

      I don’t think that we fundamentally disagree. I think what we really do is making an effort to explore the important issues and unanswered questions around UBI and the future impacts of AI and other technologies.

      The difference is that you look at the short and midterm picture and I am looking more at the long term… While I never asked for unemployment benefits or food stamps, I think people should never feel bad about asking for help, especially because people pay for those resources to be available together. I am sure you never feel bad when you ask for a payment from an insurance company. The very same way you should not feel bad about getting benefits or UBI. If people got UBI as a general rule with no need based measurement, scrutiny and discrimination, nobody would be pressured into feeling bad.

      Families should not have to go bankrupt when a loved one needs care… I have a friend who already spent four years taking care of his terminally ill mother and keeping her alive. If he did not have to struggle with a high turnover rate among the unskilled, low cost caretakers, and just had a robot doing the really difficult jobs, he could save a lot of money and energy and the caretakers on UBI could do something else, something less draining. By the way, you would probably feel more comfortable with public assistance in Sweden. The capitalism in Sweden and the capitalism in the US: very different things.

      Since humanity’s “earthly” resources are used to create anything that we use or own, and no technology would work in a vacuum without people, based on the same principle: the wealth generated with those resources should be redistributed fairly.

      Truth is, when I read Jimmy’s blog that is in Danish, I was perfectly able to read and understand it with google translate. It depends on the language. When you use google translate between Hungarian and English, it is the nature of the Hungarian language that makes the translations terrible, but after a while the automatic translations between these two languages will be just as fluid as between Danish and English today. And so in many cases we no longer require professional translation services. And just as manula basket making is almost completely forgotten as a profession in Hungary, the same way human translators will probably be a thing of the past within a few decades.

      It is possible that in our lifetime self driving, self diagnosing, energy efficient cars (or other types of vehicles) will need much less human repair. I can imagine a home repair that involves 3D printing and home delivery of parts… and I can see myself taking out an old part and replacing it based on AI video instructions (I am already able to exchange the tires, replace the battery, refill the oil in my old Mitsubishi, so I am sure I can do more with a more user friendly and self driving, intelligent car that has more predictable repair issues based on less human error). And I would write a blog about it while you plant your beautiful garden. 🙂 And when I am 80, I would like my home service robot to help me, instead of a human aid. I don’t want people to serve me. I want people to flourish creatively.

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