Ever since he was a kid, Sam Altman has been obsessed with a very specific kind of utopia.
As a young “Star Trek” fan and lover of sci-fi novels, he devoured stories of robots becoming a vital part of society, eliminating the need for humans in the workforce. Altman believed the upside to this seemingly fantastical reality was that robots produced unlimited wealth, which humans could share among themselves. They could live the lives of their choosing, unburdened by the pressures of a paycheck.
Altman is 31 now, and he’s still very much thinking about that wild idea, known today as “basic income.”
As the president of Y Combinator, the largest and most well-known startup accelerator in Silicon Valley, Altman is leading the charge on bringing basic income to the American public.
“When it’s feasible, we can totally restructure how society works,” Altman tells Tech Insider.
Since Altman founded Y Combinator in 2005, its primary function has been to help promising start-up companies get off the ground. It offers guidance, equipment, and cash to turn startups like Reddit and Airbnb — and many, many more — into the tech giants that every young CEO dreams of running.
Fast forward to the summer of 2015, and a kooky idea called basic income had started to make international headlines. Countries such as Finland and the Netherlands began announcing their plans, mostly on the city level, to launch experiments in which residents get money for doing nothing in exchange. It was the first sign of life for the idea since the Canadian town of Dauphin conducted its own small-scale experiment in the 1970s.
The media’s growing infatuation with basic income was a pleasant surprise to Altman.
“It never even crossed my mind that this was something we should try to reach out to journalists about,” he says. “I didn’t think anyone would be interested in covering it.”
But then he published a blog post about the initiative in January 2016, which was essentially a job listing for the researcher who would lead the experiment. News quickly spread that Silicon Valley’s most influential incubator wanted to dip its toes in an idea that might not just revolutionise how people earn a living, but eliminate the need for earned income altogether.
With the logistics entrusted to Elizabeth Rhodes, a University of Michigan researcher whose dissertation focused on relieving poverty in East Africa, Y Combinator announced in late May the terms of its pilot study. Officially, Y Combinator would lead the first basic income experiment to take place on American soil.
100 California families are receiving ~$1,500 per month for free
Later this year, it will begin with 100 families in Oakland, California, all of them from varied ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. They will receive between $1,000 and $2,000 a month, no matter what. Even if the recipients move or quit their jobs, they will still receive the money. The goal of the experiment will be to see how people’s lives change when they don’t have to worry about falling through the cracks in the system.
“If the pilot goes well,” Altman wrote on Y Combinator’s blog, “we plan to follow up with the main study.”
The main study is much broader in scope. It involves selecting thousands of citizens throughout the US to receive a regular paycheck, no strings attached, for a period of five years. The same conditions apply: Even if people gamble it all away or uproot their lives to start a business in Guam, the checks will keep coming.
If the Oakland pilot doesn’t go well, Altman says, Y Combinator will consider different approaches. It will conduct follow-up trials in other cities with slightly different methodology, though still in preparation for a larger five-year trial. A failure in Oakland doesn’t necessarily mean a failure of basic income.
Altman likes to challenge the idea that eliminating work also removes an essential path toward character-building, arguing that people shouldn’t be forced to compromise their sense of autonomy in life just to put food on the table. Like the characters in his sci-fi novels, they should be free to pursue whatever passions they want without feeling guilty.
“I don’t think we should be making a moral judgment about how people choose to spend their time,” Altman says, emphasising that if people don’t want to work because we have plenty of resources to cover their unemployment, they should be free to play video games all day, read books, or make art.
Altman is hardly the only person is Silicon Valley to hold these views. That’s because the tech giants that produce society’s most advanced automated robots are the same ones that will need to answer for the rampant unemployment those robots cause.
Robots will take every job within the next 100 years
Altman doesn’t know exactly when artificial intelligence will be sophisticated enough to merit a universal basic income, but he knows it will happen. He says it will take no more than 100 years and no fewer than 10 years for AI to reach a point where governments will have no choice but to issue cash handouts en masse.
If all this is beginning to sound like socialism, Altman would like to reassure you: It’s not.
Basic income doesn’t cap the amount of wealth people can amass; it only installs a financial floor, not a ceiling. Altman believes people should be as free as possible to get “as rich as they fucking want,” so long as the people at the very bottom still have all their basic needs met.
Altman believes people should be as free as possible to get ‘as rich as they f—ing want,’ so long as the people at the very bottom still have all their basic needs met.
“I am almost sure that in a world of basic income, [income and wealth inequality] will get a lot, lot worse,” he says.
While some people will coast by, happy to live on their minimum payments each month, others will retain their entrepreneurial spirit and build fortunes. “We need to be ready for a world with trillionaires in it, and that’s always going to feel deeply unfair. It feels unfair to me. But to drive society forward, you’ve got to let that happen.”
Y Combinator aims to uplift companies that Altman and his teammates think could move society toward a brighter future. The basic income experiment is just an extension of that.
“I want to have the maximum good impact on the world that I can,” Altman says. “If there are things I believe very strongly are going to happen, then I should dedicate our organisation’s resources to helping with that.”
Anyone in the startup world knows that making an impact involves plenty of failure along the way. Y Combinator’s pilot data, for example, could easily show that people used the money for trips to Disneyland instead of home repair and school supplies.
That’s why for a basic income experiment to work, companies and governments need to place extreme trust in human beings’ ability to look out for themselves. It may be the only way society can ever create a future in which, 50 years from now, people will be able to tell their robot servants to make sure their basic income checks were wired properly.
For those who still cling to the idea of work being necessary to gain fulfillment, Altman encourages people to consider how future societies may come to see us once basic income has taken over. He believes the fact that early 21st-century societies denied certain people basic needs could make us all seem like barbarians.
“I do think at some point, and I don’t know when,” he says, “people will be somewhat horrified that we let people not have enough heat.”