Sam Altman is putting a lot of faith in the idea that giving people free money will make them happier and healthier, but that doesn’t mean he’s betting it all.
Altman is the president of Y Combinator, Silicon Valley’s largest startup accelerator. Beginning in 2017, he and a group of YC researchers are launching an experiment in Oakland, California, where roughly 100 families will get $2,000 a month.
The goal is to capture data that reveals if free money on a regular basis (known as a basic income) really does help people escape poverty and live healthier lives.
Enormous piles of data from underdeveloped countries, such as Kenya and Honduras, already suggest people do see those benefits. But the US is uncharted territory for basic income. Sceptics say Americans have an ingrained instinct for work that basic income could fail to override.
Altman, one of Silicon Valley’s largest champions for basic income, admits even he retains some of that doubt.
“I believe that when automation comes, we will have enough extra money that the maths will work,” he tells Business Insider. Meaning, when robots and artificial intelligence replace huge swaths of the American labour force, basic income could be a way out.
“What’s unclear to me,” Altman continues, “is will people be net-happier or are we just so dependent on our jobs for meaning and fulfillment?”
Altman envisions a scenario in which the majority of Americans, fresh off their initial basic income payments, become perfectly content to sit at home in their virtual reality headsets. He questions whether that future is necessarily better than the stimulation and (modest) physical activity found in commuting to work and chatting with coworkers.
“People do form bonds with their community and their society through work,” he says. “And I think it does contribute to our national cohesion.”
Staunch basic income advocates don’t necessarily disagree with Altman, but they also don’t share his pessimism that basic income will produce a society of couch potatoes. Many say the system would merely free people up to do different kinds of work — work they find more satisfying than the kind that pays the bills.
In other words, accountants could paint more. Lawyers could practice the drums more. Everyone with a hobby could make that their sole focus. And yes, people who like VR could use VR to their heart’s desire.
How the future shakes out could come down to how Americans learn about such a system: As psychologist Daniel Kahneman once noted, “People don’t choose between things, they choose between descriptions of things.”
If basic income is presented as a radical style of welfare, it’s likely to upset people who already oppose welfare in its current form. People who see value in work for its own sake could bristle at the idea of severing income from a work requirement.
On the other hand, if it’s presented as a means to freedom from work you hate, people might see basic income as inherently more American than the existing labour structure. Citizens could finally do the work that matters most to them rather than the work that pays the best.
The future hasn’t arrived yet, so it’s impossible to know what kind of effects an overhaul of that scale — free money for all, no strings attached — would end up having. Until the data offers that clarity, Altman says, he’ll continue experimenting with tiny versions of the future to see which look the most appealing.