President Obama: We'll be debating unconditional free money 'over the next 10 or 20 years'

Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Speaking with Wired Editor in Chief Scott Dadich and MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito in a recent interview, President Barack Obama reaffirmed his belief that universal basic income will get harder to ignore in the coming decades.

UBI is a system of wealth distribution in which the government provides everyone with a standard salary, regardless of income.

The money comes with no strings attached. People can use it however they choose, whether it’s to repair a leaky roof or go on vacation. Advocates claim the system is a smart and straightforward way to lift people out of poverty.

A growing body of evidence suggests such a system may be necessary if artificial intelligence wipes out a huge chunk of the jobs currently performed by humans. That is the future President Obama wants to avoid, and also the one that he says merits a debate on basic income.

“What is indisputable … is that as AI gets further incorporated, and the society potentially gets wealthier, the link between production and distribution, how much you work and how much you make, gets further and further attenuated,” Obama told Dadich and Ito.

The president has expressed such concerns in the past.

In June, Obama told Bloomberg Businessweek that the US will need to redesign the social compact as AI plays a larger role in the economy. “The notion of a 40-hour workweek, a minimum wage, child labour laws, etc. — those will have to be updated for these new realities,” he said.

Several months before that, Obama released his February economic report to Congress, in which he offered data that showed a high probability of automation replacing the lowest-paid workers: those manning the deep fryers, call centres, and supermarket cash registers.

In his latest interview, he emphasised how the changing nature of work compels us to re-reevaluate which jobs we want to put a premium on.

“Whether it’s teachers, nurses, caregivers, mums or dads who stay at home, artists, all the things that are incredibly valuable to us right now but don’t rank high on the pay totem pole,” he said, “that’s a conversation we need to begin to have.”

The size of UBI’s role in the future depends largely on how much the system earns widespread support, Obama told Dadich and Ito. It’s a concern others have raised.

A common response to UBI is a feeling that it’s unfair. Critics allege giving people free money, whether they work or not, violates the sacred ideal of earning your living.

Some UBI advocates, on the other hand, say the system provides an even stronger American luxury: freedom. They say it unshackles people from having to make compromises in how they live just so they can survive.

But many people pushing for UBI, like Y Combinator President Sam Altman, who is launching a UBI experiment in California in 2017, take the pragmatic view. Altman shares Obama’s vision of an AI-dominated future. At some point, he says, AI will leave so few jobs to humans that UBI won’t be a matter of debate. It will be the only system left.

Candidates considering running for office in 2032, consider Obama’s words advice for running your future campaign: Read up on basic income.

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