UBI imagines a world in which all jobs are carried out by robots. The increased use of robots in work is assumed to mean that we can never achieve full employment again. This is despite the fact that the period of full employment, between WW2 and Thatcher, occurred after the development of the stocking frame (and the objections of the stockingists), the loom (and the power loom riots of 1826) and the industrial revolution. Not only that, but the working week has grown from 25 hours per household in the agrarian past (150 days per year; assuming 48 weeks per year) to 40 per working-age adult at the current time. Modern ‘robots’ are merely computer-based machines.
Some thought experiments suggest that we are unlikely to see a completely robotic workforce for some time yet, if ever. It is likely that we will always wish to educate our children. Do we want our children to be taught, encouraged and disciplined by computers? It is likely that there will always be disabled people. Whilst many may prefer robots to assist them with intimate tasks, will that end the need for social interaction? Currently we have robot-assisted surgery. But it is a person who diagnoses, decides what to do and operates the computer-robot. Perhaps one day most medicine will be carried out by robots. But counselling works predominantly by the development of a therapeutic relationship. That cannot be replicated by robots.
Perhaps one day all decisions will be made by robots. Perhaps robots will not only be able to hedge-lay and build dry-stone walls, but will be able to determine when and where to restore or create such boundaries. Perhaps they will be able to decide where floodplains need to be restored and will be able to inform all the people currently living on the floodplain in time for them to adjust; build them a new and better town or village nearby; and relocate the farmers whose land has now been built on to create the new town or village. Perhaps the robots will carry out research for – and on or to – us, even though the trend in sociology is towards participatory research.
Perhaps political and economic decisions will be made by robots, doing away with politicians and voting and elections. I hope these robots are capable of coming up with the perfect compromises to benefit all people of the world without fighting or injustice. I hope they can decide who needs what, and make decisions when what one person needs or wants conflicts with another person’s needs or rights. Perhaps I am wrong to doubt our ability to build and program robots to make such decisions when we cannot yet make them ourselves. I certainly hope that such robots will be incapable of going rogue and deciding that the route to peace is to kill all humans, though that would be a highly effective solution.
Humans have always made tools, right from the earliest stone tools through to modern computers. It is a mark of our humanity that we have developed such sophisticated tool use far beyond that of any other animal. But it doesn’t mean that we will ever reach a point where no person ever has to do any work. It is likely that there will always be people needed to regulate robots, and therefore a political system so that we can choose how we want those robots to be regulated. It is likely that we will always prefer social interaction to robotic interaction, and therefore will want teachers, police officers, judges, prison officers, probation officers, counsellors, doctors, personal support workers, coaches, advocates. In fact anywhere that there is an ethical decision to be made, or where a job is enhanced by relationship, we will need people. Unless we evolve into an asocial species, this will always be the case.
So the idea that we need a UBI because of automation is false. There will always be jobs. There will always therefore be the potential to distribute those jobs fairly across all people, with choice as to the specific job undertaken and the provision of a decent wage and decent working conditions. The issue is therefore not automation, but the failure of government to ensure full employment. The issue is not robots, but that the government has refused to pay people to do socially useful work that cannot return a private profit. What we have instead is involuntary unemployment at the same time that many people do unpaid voluntary work (which the government could pay for), and valuable work including in social care, education, healthcare, police, justice, environment, transport, infrastructure and other public sectors is not getting done.
The issue is not whether there is enough work to go around. The issue is whether or not the government will pay for it.