Listen to Meghna Chakrabarti's extended interview with the award-winning authors of "The Expanse" here.
Could artificial intelligence replace hundreds of millions of jobs in the near future?
"Most CEOs and managers aren’t preparing enough for that transition," says Erik Brynjolfsson. "The next coming decade could be the best decade that we’ve seen on Earth. Or it could be one of the worst."
If that happens, how will people make ends meet?
"We’re all the ones who trained AI. We all made it possible. We should receive our cut of all of this productivity growth," says Scott Santens.
Today, On Point: Could the rise of AI be the best argument yet for universal basic income?
Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, co-authors of The Expanse, a science fiction series they wrote under the joint pen name James S.A. Corey. The Expanse was also adapted into a TV show currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Erik Brynjolfsson, professor at Stanford University's Institute for Human-Centered AI and Director of the Stanford Digital Economy Lab.
Scott Santens, founder and president of the Income to Support All Foundation which advocates for universal basic income.
LaShell Thompson, program manager for Casa Myrna, a domestic violence hotline in Boston. Participant in Cambridge's RiseUp program, which sends residents $500 per month for 18 months.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: How did you come up with the idea for the stories in The Expanse series?
DANIEL ABRAHAM: I said “Ty, what happens?” and he told me. It was great. (LAUGHS)
TY FRANCK: (LAUGHS)
CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) No, seriously! Because it’s so good. The idea that this proto-molecule comes from like an asteroid from far away and it just upends everything about humanity. And we can’t really handle it very well because we’re just really good at taking our political problems with us wherever we go in this universe. It’s really, really good.
ABRAHAM: That’s just history. That’s every major technological advance in human history. We’ve been doing that same pattern of the organism not changing and the structures around the organism being transformed by technology since we came up with like fire.
FRANCK: Yeah, I’m sure that the first thing prehistoric man did when he discovered how to set things on fire is that he started setting his neighbors on fire.
FRANCK: That’s just the way — that’s just the way we work.
CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. And…
ABRAHAM: This is Daniel. I can hear you. The other guy’s Ty. (LAUGHS)
CHAKRABARTI: The "other guy" being Ty Franck. Ty and his friend Daniel Abraham write under the pseudonym James S.A. Corey and they’re the authors of an award-winning, best-selling sci-fi novel series called The Expanse.
I’ve wanted to talk with Abraham and Franck for a long time, not only because I’m a huge fan of The Expanse, but because of a question that’s gripped my mind and will not let go: Could the rapid advances in artificial intelligence be the best argument yet for universal basic income? Here’s what I told the guys:
CHAKRABARTI: And I thought, you know, one of the best depictions of this possible future that I’ve ever seen, is in The Expanse. And so I was like “'Ha ha! Claire Donnelly, my amazing producer, ‘Go get Daniel and Ty!’”
CHAKRABARTI: Which, of course, Claire did.
So this is the point I put to them. With the rapid development of AI and automation lots of great things will happen, but so will lots of disruption. A Goldman Sachs analysis earlier this year estimates that just about all work will eventually be touched by AI somehow.
And, in the future, across big economies in the U.S. and Europe, AI could fully replace some 300 million jobs. We’ll debate that number later. But it is possible that humanity may be headed toward a “too many people, not enough jobs” problem — exactly the future Daniel and Ty imagine in The Expanse.
ABRAHAM: And I was like, "Yep, here it comes. Here it comes. Oh, yeah."
CHAKRABARTI: Some background: The Expanse is set a couple of hundred years in the future, though it’s not super specific when.
FRANCK: (LAUGHS) Well, we very carefully never say.
CHAKRABARTI: Humanity has colonized the solar system. Mars is an independent military power. There are resource wars in the asteroid belt. And, closer to the sun...
FRANCK: Planet Earth went through a near fatal ecological collapse.
CHAKRABARTI: After which the UN is in charge of Earth and the 30 billion people living on it.
FRANCK: Earth is a largely jobless place. AI and automation have rendered most jobs obsolete.
CHAKRABARTI: So to support billions of people who can’t get work, future-UN creates something called "Basic."
ABRAHAM: Basic services are like, there is a place to live. It may not be in the city you want it to be, but there will be a roof over your head. You will have clothes. They may be made out of paper, but you will have them. There will be enough food for you to stay alive. There will be minimum healthcare — nothing heroic, but you know, more than you would have if you didn’t have anything.
CHAKRABARTI: In The Expanse television series, we learn about "Basic" in Season 2.
WOMAN’S VOICE: Take advantage of Basic income, group housing, medical services. Register today for a better tomorrow. (STATIC)
CHAKRABARTI: When a character named Bobbie Draper first steps foot outside the UN complex in New York City.
FRANCK: Bobbie Draper is a Martian, in the sense that humans live on Mars.
CHAKRABARTI: More specifically, she’s Gunnery Sergeant Bobbie Draper, Martian Marine.
BOBBIE DRAPER: (SLAMS TABLE) Not today! You hear me soldier?
CHAKRABARTI: That’s her from The Expanse TV series, played by Frankie Adams.
(SCENE FROM TV SHOW)
DRAPER: Marines, who do we fight for?
DRAPER: Suit up. War is coming.
CHAKRABARTI: By the way, I told Daniel and Ty that The Expanse has some of the best female characters anywhere in modern sci-fi, and that my personal favorite is UN chief Chrisjen Avasarala, played with relish by Shoreh Agdashloo.
CHRISJEN AVASARALA: Sometimes I f*****g hate being right.
CHAKRABARTI: Never has a woman dropped so many f-bombs that I loved more than her. (LAUGHTER)
(SCENE FROM TV SHOW)
(AVASARALA TALKING) MARTIAN: With all due respect Madam, where are you going with this?
AVASARALA: Wherever I goddamn like.
CHAKRABARTI: Anyway, back to Bobbie Draper, Martian Marine.
FRANCK: And so she gets this moment when she gets to just walk around on Earth and meet people from Earth.
(SCENE FROM TV SHOW)
DRAPER: Excuse me, do you know the fastest way to the ocean?
EARTHER: For fifty, I do.
FRANCK: So Bobbie had lived her entire life with the propaganda about Earth, and who Earthers were, and the things that they cared about.
CHAKRABARTI: Remember, in The Expanse, Earth and Mars are at war. Martian Marines believe that Earth is flush with resources, that people with jobs are makers; those on Basic, takers. However, there’s a scene where Earth’s leader, Chrisjen Avasarala, tells Bobbie that that’s just not true.
(SCENE FROM TV SHOW)
AVASARALA: Did you know that the majority of people on Earth don’t have jobs. They don’t work at all. They live on basic assistance, which the government provides.
DRAPER: I did know that.
AVASARALA: You call them takers, I believe.
DRAPER: Yes, ma’am.
AVASARALA: It’s not that they’re lazy, you know. It’s just that we can’t give them enough opportunities.
CHAKRABARTI: But Bobbie doesn’t believe it, until she walks around New York herself.
ABRAHAM: Bobbie resets and sees what the lived experience is on the ground here.
CHAKRABARTI: It’s grim. Overpopulated and underemployed.
(SCENE FROM TV SHOW)
DRAPER: So you’re a doctor?
NICO: I put myself on the vocational training list when I was 17 years old. I’m 52 now. Still waiting for my slot.
CHAKRABARTI: It was at this point in the series where I started to feel like, "Wow, The Expanse is really cutting close to the bone." Which made that big question burrow even deeper in my mind: In our real lives, could the rise of AI be the best argument yet for UBI?
FRANCK: The Basic of The Expanse is not universal basic income. Because universal basic income is you give people money and you let them spend it how they want to spend it. In The Expanse, Basic is the services provided by the government but no income provided with them. Universal basic income treats the citizens as grownups who know how to spend their own money. The Basic of The Expanse is not treating the citizens like grownups.
CHAKRABARTI: In addition to that, though, there's still the fact that the moral similarity, I would say, is that people are being given something.
ABRAHAM: They are being given something instead of just letting them die on the streets. (LAUGHS) So there's — so there's your moral question, which is: Which is more morally upstanding? Giving somebody undeserving something that they don't deserve or letting them die on the street? What do you think?
CHAKRABARTI: Well, I know what my answer is, but I'll let them — I'll let the audience answer it in that very pregnant pause. (LAUGHS)
FRANCK: I also think that the reason you wind up with Basic in The Expanse is that, you know, you hear the conversation about universal basic income. And it gets very heated very quickly. You know, “I had to work for my money. Why should other people just get it for free?”
I think if you're selling the populace on a system to keep people from dying in the streets, as Daniel says, Basic is an easier sell. It's like, "Well, we're not giving them any money. They're not going to spend it on drugs and pornography. We're giving them a place to live. We’re giving them some food. They can't use it to buy drugs." I think that that becomes hard, how you sell it.
ABRAHAM: And it won't be a good house and there won't be good clothes and it won't be good food. There won't be a nice life. It won't be pleasant. They'll still suffer. So that's okay.
TY FRANCK: Right.
DANIEL ABRAHAM: No?
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Well, my point is the future painted in The Expanse is a plausible one, precisely because of the technological disruption we're living through right now. And to this, Daniel and Ty did not disagree, because some of the inspiration for The Expanse comes from their own experiences on the job.
ABRAHAM: I did 10 years of frontline tech support and the thing that I saw was the way that jobs got larger and larger and more and more duties fell to people and it became more and more important to capture intelligence and operations knowledge in systems instead of people.
FRANCK: So I come out of the corporate world — first an operations manager and then later an executive. And the thing that operations was always trying to do is get rid of all the people. You know, if you could replace all of your warehouse workers with automated picking systems, you tried to figure out how to do that.
There's a lot of internal pressure to get humans out of the system. Humans are always a failure point in the system from the operations perspective. And so just, I've always had that sort of sense that the minute we can get rid of all the people, we will. Because you know, I worked in a world where that was like an ongoing mission statement.
CHAKRABARTI: The reason why I have been a lifelong lover of science fiction is because in my mind it's fiction now, but fact later. And so do you think that it's possible sometime in the maybe not even that distant of a future where a scenario like this could actually come to pass, the “too many people, not enough jobs" scenario? So that some kind of additional assistance is going to be required to keep many people who once worked full time afloat?
FRANCK: Yeah. I mean, I think we're almost there now. We're getting close to that point. And the other thing that we're seeing right now is a massive growth in economic disparity. You know, the upper class and the lower class have never been further apart in American history. So I think we're pushing up on that moment already. You know, if — if the predictions are true and what we think of as AI — which I don't, I, what we have right now is not actually AI — but if it gets good enough that it can replace a lot of jobs, at some point, we're going to have to look at that and go, “What are we going to do with all these people? We have to do something with them.”
CHAKRABARTI: Could the rapid rise of artificial intelligence be the best argument yet for universal basic income? That's the question for the day. Joining us now is Erik Brynjolfsson. He's a professor and senior fellow at Stanford University's Institute for Human Centered AI. He's also director of the Stanford Digital Economy Lab. Erik, it's good to talk to you again. Welcome back to the show.
ERIK BRYNJOLFSSON: It's wonderful to talk to you again, Meghna. I love your show.
CHAKRABARTI: Also with us now is Scott Santens. He's a founder and president of the Income to Support All Foundation, which advocates for universal basic income. Scott, welcome to you.
SCOTT SANTENS: Hi, Meghna. Thanks for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: All right, so let's grapple with that number that we revealed in the previous segment with the co-authors of The Expanse. And yes, I do love the books and the show. (LAUGHS) But that number from Goldman Sachs, which came out in a report from them earlier this year, that 300 million jobs could be lost or degraded by artificial intelligence.
Now, that's not the only report that I've encountered across this year. There was another, for example, from McKinsey that said in the United States, one in four workers will see AI adopted into their jobs. There was another one, another report that said when you take into account AI and automation, that it could displace 400 to 800 million jobs by 2030 worldwide.
And then there was one from the World Economic Forum, also 2023, their "Future of Jobs" report, that said that 83 million job losses could happen in the next five years because of AI and automation. And 44% of workers — their skills will be disrupted. So they'll have to do something to keep up with technology.
So that's my first question to both of you. And Erik, we'll start with you: How realistic do you think these numbers are?
BRYNJOLFSSON: Well, this is a huge disruptive force, and I do expect massive disruption in jobs and skills in the coming decade, more than we've seen in the past few decades. The thing that I want to stress, though, is that technology has always been destroying jobs and it's always been creating jobs. I don't think this is going to be different in the sense that there's going to be a lot of churn, but it's not necessarily a net job loss. I think most of us know that something close to 90% of Americans were farmers a couple of hundred years ago. Now it's 2%. There've been this constant change over time.
Going forward, I think there's going to be a lot of need for reskilling. And I think, frankly, a lot of executives aren't taking it seriously enough, how much their companies are going to be disrupted. But this is not mass unemployment ahead of us. Right now, we're actually close to record low unemployment and the labor force participation is pretty high.
The AI that we see coming down the pike is going to be very disruptive, but most of those quotes refer to affecting jobs or changing jobs, not replacing jobs, and there will be new jobs created as well. So I think we should be prepared for some big disruption. But if we handle it right, there's going to be a lot of new jobs created as well.
CHAKRABARTI: Got it. So totally take your point about not just looking at the changes or losses, but also new productivity that could come about — new jobs, new ways of making a living. We're going to come back to all that in just a second, Erik. But Scott, I wanted to hear from you as well, because as someone who's looked at the impact of technological and economic disruption on people for a long time, what do you see in the coming wave of AI and work?
SANTENS: Yeah, I think it was good that you started by mentioning about all these different, you know, reports that have been done. Because a lot of this is just a complete unknown. And unknown means that there's a lot of insecurity. And I think that that insecurity, regardless of what happens, is quite real for people.
So just in the past couple of years, people are worrying about the loss of their jobs at a seven percentage point increase. And that's kind of a — it's kind of a big difference.
SANTENS: And what that means is for every 10 percentage point increase in concern of losing your job, that actually decreases worker health by 2.4 percentage points. So even just worrying this — this unknown of what's going to happen to your job is already having real impacts. And I think that's what we have to account for, especially, is to actually increase people's security. You know, it's not only about making sure people have money to spend, it's actually making sure they have stability in their lives.
CHAKRABARTI: Stability, security, health, well-being. Okay, these are also things I want to come back to a little later in the show. But I just want to dig into what kind of revolution we're — could be on the the precipice of, or the cusp of, precipice only implies something negative here.
Now, Erik, you've been thinking about this for a long time. I read your book — and Andrew McAfee's book — from many, many years ago about the second machine revolution. And this example of technological change does cause disruption, but new things arise on the other side of that wave is a very compelling one.
However, when you talked about our previous agrarian economy from a couple of centuries ago, point well taken. But in that same notion, Erik, you said that there's going to be a huge change coming to us in the next decade. So it's just like a different — completely different timescale when we're talking about AI, isn't it, Erik?
BRYNJOLFSSON: It is. It is. I absolutely think it's going to be much more disruptive. And I do want to warn executives and leaders and policymakers and citizens to be prepared for that. And I don't think we are sufficiently prepared. And the disruption is going to have a lot of winners and losers. So I am concerned that we aren't taking it seriously enough.
I just want to stress the unemployment part — I think there's going to be shortages in other categories of jobs, and we're gonna have to think about how to reskill the workforce. But this is absolutely a tidal wave that's coming at us.
CHAKRABARTI: Can you tell me a little bit more about why you're saying you don't think executives are taking it seriously enough? Because I think you're working with some companies on exactly this issue, Erik.
BRYNJOLFSSON: Yes, I am. I'm working with a lot of companies, and one of the things — I moved out to Silicon Valley. I used to be your neighbor there in Massachusetts.
BRYNJOLFSSON: And one of the things that I spend a lot of time is with the people who are inventing these technologies. It's astonishing how optimistic they are about what they're going to be able to do in the coming years. You know, most of your audience has probably played with chatGPT and, you know, seen the progression between GPT2, GPT3, GPT4. There's a quantum improvement with each generation.
And they're pretty confident that GPT5 and GPT6 and the equivalents that are in the pipeline — there are some scaling laws, they're called, where you just put more compute, more data, more parameters, and you get a pretty predictable improvement in the capabilities. And if those scaling laws hold true going forward the way they have in the past, we're going to have machines that can do a lot of what college educated people can do today.
Already, you can see that they're taking over more capabilities. And that's going to — well, the good news, you mentioned it earlier, is going to boost productivity quite a bit. I think that the Congressional Budget Office is lowballing what productivity growth is going to be in the coming decade. And as we have more productivity, we have more resources, more ability to solve problems.
But it also is a comparable disruption in work. And I think most people are kind of, you know, backward looking. They saw what happened in the past. And there's some disruption, but what's ahead of us is a lot bigger.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So, Erik, you said something really, really important there, almost as a sort of parenthetical. That as we see increased productivity — which I don't doubt that we will — with automation and AI, it gives us more resources to do things, right? To help solve problems.
CHAKRABARTI: That's the key thing, right? It's just not — it's not just the productivity measure that you can look at and say, "Well, look, you know, productivity per person or per capita is going to go up by 10 or 15%" because that's the positive side of the negative — the flip side of the unemployment or underemployment side of things.
So Scott, that brings me back to you and the central question here of the hour about could AI be the most potent argument yet for UBI? Do you see any evidence in technological disruptions of the past that we have used our increased productivity to smooth out the massive rough spots that a disruption causes to give people more stability as the economy converts to something new?
SANTENS: Yeah, I think it's actually really important to look at the way this has worked out in the past. Back in the seventies, productivity decoupled from wages and about $50 trillion worth, according to one analysis, went to the top instead of the bottom 90%. So we think if you look at the inequality around us, that's really what's been happening as jobs have changed. You've seen this kind of coring out of the middle class.
And there have been new jobs that have been created. There are always new jobs that are being created. The question is how much do those jobs pay? What are those jobs doing? How much value and meaning do those people find in those jobs? What's the security that those jobs provide? Where are those jobs located? Like, there's all these different questions to ask about what happens.
But we've seen that productivity has, for the most part, benefited only the top. And so I do think it's important that as we consider the question of universal basic income, we should be seeing this as a dividend of productivity growth. And I would hope that as productivity growth, again, gets a shot in the arm from AI and automation in general, that we actually start to say, "Well, who should this benefit? Who should these machines work for?" And UBI would mean that that automation works for everybody. And traditionally, that has meant that the automation just works for the owners of the machines and the stockholders.
CHAKRABARTI: Right. So you want to bring those two curves back closer together, right? Productivity and well being, I think, overall is what you're talking about.
CHAKRABARTI: So give me an example of — I don't know if there's a concrete example right now or even a, you know, theoretical one about — so how would that work? Would you advocate for, in the very near future — because again, I'm thinking about what Erik said about this next decade could be make or break for us as workers — but would it, could you think that some program like, say, UBI, if you're transitioning and trying to reskill yourself from one job to another if AI comes in and, you know, replaces some of or a lot of what you do? Could you see, or do you prefer, a more sort of permanent generalized basic income program? What would you look for, Scott?
SANTENS: I would like to see UBI as a rising floor tied to productivity growth. So that as technology improves and increases, then everybody benefits always. And that's not to say that's the only thing that we should do. We should absolutely have job training programs. We should help people find and move to new places to find the jobs that they want. We should have, you know, education that's more available for people.
But it's pivotal that people actually have this floor underneath them and that they are receiving their share of the overall growth. And I think what people kind of — if you just think of basic income as a, "in case of emergency, break glass" kind of thing, you see it as in like The Expanse novels, as in this kind of ceiling where actually it's this floor.
And if people have money, then they can actually start up their own businesses. They can pursue things that they wouldn't otherwise be able to pursue. And people have money to spend at those businesses as consumers. And so that's actually productivity improving further. It helps grow the economy.
CHAKRABARTI: Mm. So Erik, taking what Scott just said and applying it to sort of how government and the business sector work right now. I'm exercising a little bit of caution against my hope here because oftentimes we find that major change comes actually from the business sector, right? When leaders get together and say, "this isn't working for us in whatever areas we're in. Let's press our policymakers." But I also hear you say that so many CEOs simply aren't aware of or taking the coming change seriously enough. And in fact, it sounds like you're also intimating that a lot of big companies may fail because of this.
BRYNJOLFSSON: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
CHAKRABARTI: So what role do you think, you know, business leaders should play in helping us manage this, you know, next decade or so?
BRYNJOLFSSON: Well, two things. First off, I think every CEO needs a plan for how they're going to manage AI, especially generative AI, this new revolution of technologies that can create a lot of content of different types that's often quite creative and very useful, and it's only going to get better. And it's going to affect almost every worker they have in their organization.
Almost anybody who uses language — and not many people don't — or does creative work with arts. So that's — that's something that they — most CEOs don't currently have a plan, a strategy for that. And they need to do that.
The second thing, and I want to underscore what Scott said, you know, we can create prosperity, productivity can go up, but there's no economic law that says that everyone's going to benefit. Some people could actually be made worse off as these technologies improve. So even as you get a bigger pie, the slices get rearranged in ways that are unfavorable.
And I think we've done a terrible job, as Scott underscored, over the past couple of decades, where a lot of the gains have gone to a very small slice of the population. It doesn't have to be that way. Both CEOs, or executives and people running companies, as well as policymakers could do things pretty differently to create more shared prosperity.
We've seen — I think there's an instinct often to look at the technology to replace workers and substitute for workers. And that can be profitable and that does work at times. But in most cases, the bigger benefit is using the technology to augment workers, allow them to do new things they hadn't done before.
We've done some studies with companies where people rolled out generative AI in a way that helped less experienced, less skilled workers become dramatically more productive. And it was really a win, not just for the company and the stockholders, but it was a win for the workers and it was a win for the customers. I don't think enough organizations are thinking about using technology in that way that augments humans rather than replaces them.
CHAKRABARTI: Right. And I'm also thinking of maybe just sort of the nature of our conception of what a work week is might change, maybe a way to handle this is everyone — five day work weeks just simply aren't necessary anymore. Maybe it's four. Maybe it's three. I mean, I think there's a lot of examples on the changes we need to make, including possibly UBI.
But Scott, that actually leads me to wonder, it wasn't that long ago, but when a lot of people just kind of rolled their eyes at UBI and just thought, "Well, that's Andrew Yang's campaign slogan." But I wonder if even just in the past couple of years you've seen a marked change in people's perception of the concept of universal basic income?
SANTENS: Yeah, it was really interesting to see during the pandemic that people really embraced basic income as a possible response to that. Because again, no one knew what was going to happen. And it was that unknown that really sparked people to think, "Well, I want some kind of stability, some kind of floor."
So we responded in certain ways. We had the stimulus checks and the unemployment boost and these various things. But we did not do any kind of monthly income response to make sure people had security. But that is what people wanted. And I think a lot of people came out of that thinking, "Wow, how different would things have been if we'd actually had a basic income in place before the pandemic?"
Like, we saw these giant lines for food banks and we had stores full of food. It's just that people didn't have the money because we just — so many people lost their jobs so quickly that there was a need for something. And imagine if we had had basic income during that time.
CHAKRABARTI: Mm. So that's so important to keep in mind because, as you point out, this giant spasm, right, of instability and unemployment — amongst people who maybe thought they had more stability in their lives, that's the other key thing --maybe has changed our idea of the role that basic income could play.
Well, I think AI, as we've established already, is going to create a similar spasm over, you know, the next decade as Erik Brynjolfsson says. So when we come back, we're going to hear from someone who's a living example of the difference that basic income can make in a person's life.
CHAKRABARTI: Today we're taking a look at the question about whether artificial intelligence and the rise of AI and automation could be the best argument yet for universal basic income. Erik Brynjolfsson joins us today. He's senior fellow at Stanford University's Institute for Human Centered AI. He's also director of the Stanford Digital Economy Lab. And Scott Santens is with us as well. He's founder and president of the Income to Support All Foundation, which advocates for universal basic income.
Now, as promised, I want to hear a little bit from someone who has recently been receiving monthly checks from their local government and the difference that that has made. And it's taking place in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Erik, you know Cambridge well, because it's one of the most expensive cities in one of the most expensive states in the country. Median cost of a home in Cambridge? About $1 million in comparison to the national median home price of around $415,000.
In 2021, Cambridge launched a pilot program that was a guaranteed income pilot program. And 130 people then were selected to participate. Now, the city believed the program was so successful, that this year, in 2023, Cambridge decided not only to continue, but to radically expand the program into one of the largest in the country.
So now, all Cambridge families with children under 21 that make less than 250% of the federal poverty line – so about $75,000 for a family of four – they're guaranteed a monthly $500 cash payment from the city, no strings attached.
Now, interestingly, Cambridge, Massachusetts is also home to places like Harvard University, MIT, a huge tech and biotech industry – the kind of places that are developing the AI we’ve been talking about this hour. Well, LaShell Thompson is part of Cambridge’s guaranteed income program.
LASHELL THOMPSON: I take $250 and I put it towards food, extra, a month because food — food is so expensive. It's ridiculous. And then, you know, we eat a lot of plant-based foods and that's even more expensive. I feel like the healthier you eat, the more expensive your food is. The other 250 I put up – I keep on there. And what I plan to do is at the end of the 18 months is to open up an account and put it in there.
CHAKRABARTI: LaShell is mother to four kids and makes around $65,000 a year at a non-profit supporting survivors of domestic violence. And she says people like her who are often stuck in the middle — they're not making enough to get by, but making too much to qualify for federal assistance programs like WIC or SNAP or Medicaid.
THOMPSON: You can't even get a decent apartment in Cambridge — a three bedroom — that's less than $5,000, to be honest. You know what I mean? Buy food. Because remember: Because you have that job and even though you have kids, you know, even although you're struggling, you're no longer eligible for Mass Health. You're no longer eligible for food stamps, even though like it's like so hard, you know what I mean?
It's like that that median people, it's like we we don't have it all, you know what I mean? But because, you know, the government or whatever says that we make this amount of money, we don't need no assistance. And it's just not true.
CHAKRABARTI: LaShell says the $500 per month from Cambridge’s guaranteed income program is providing her family something crucial that we talked about earlier – stability, and the ability to build up a fund for emergencies.
She's also no stranger to the rise of artificial intelligence. LaShell spent two years working as an intake coordinator at Boston’s Jewish Family and Children’s Services. Her job was to answer calls and get people connected to the resources and support they need. That’s a job that she realizes could eventually be automated.
THOMPSON: They can, you know, have a system where they’d just be like, “Okay, do this survey on here real quick.” They see if they're eligible. “Provide us with A, B, and C. Okay, and now we have that.” Like, basically cut me out the picture. You know what I mean? They don't need me no more.
It’s easier. They don't have to worry about me being sick. You know what I mean? Things like natural, like, stuff that human beings go through, AI wouldn't have to go through. So it's so reliable. So if a company really wanted to invest in that, I could see why they would go that way, even though it's just inhumane to me.
CHAKRABARTI: These days, LaShell works at Casa Myrna in Boston. It’s an organization that supports domestic violence survivors. LaShell works on their hotline. She says sometimes there simply aren’t enough people to answer all the calls.
THOMPSON: There will be people on the phone waiting idle for like 20 minutes. It all depends. Because we can't say, “Hey, hi, got another call. I got to call you back.” You know what I mean? If somebody's in crisis, we've got to provide safety planning, supportive listening, provide those resources, connect them to a shelter bed if one's open, maybe connect them to a hospital or something like that.
So as much as we want to like hurry up and work with the next person, sometimes it's not like that. So sometimes there are people who are left waiting longer than usual and then they might hang up.
CHAKRABARTI: So because of that, LaShell sees the potential usefulness of AI. Because it could help manage the call volume. But at the same time, she worries that people who call in need of help would lose something major in the process — human connection.
THOMPSON: Sometimes they're not even looking for resources. Sometimes they're just looking for supportive listening. Sometimes they're looking for somebody to say, “I understand what you're getting through. It's going to be okay. Right now, let's just take time out and let's just breathe.”
A computer, of course they can tell you that, but I mean, how many people are listening to a computer? You know what I mean? And it's all about your deliverance and things like that. Like, some people just need to feel somebody else listening to them and being there, especially when you're a domestic violence survivor.
CHAKRABARTI: So for now, AI hasn’t been adopted by LaShell’s employer. But she’s definitely thinking about the possibilities and about the financial implications on her if it does.
THOMPSON: This AI, a lot of people put their faith in that, and I just think that it could just be wrong. And then it could, you know, leave people like me out of a job, you know what I mean? So I think that that's where that universal basic income comes in. It's like, yeah, that's good because in the event that ever did happen, at least we would have that to fall back on versus nothing.
CHAKRABARTI: That’s LaShell Thompson in Cambridge, Massachusetts and is part of the city’s program called RiseUp Cambridge that sends $500 a month to some 2,000 residents in the city right now and they're doing it for 18 months.
Well, Scott Santens, let me ask you something. You had mentioned that it's the pandemic that really opened people's eyes to the necessity of some kind of consistent assistance to help manage major disruption. I should note that the Cambridge basic income program is funded by COVID relief funds for now, some $88 million that the city of Cambridge has to spend on programs like this.
We don't have time to talk about what a city might do after those funds run out, but let me ask you: Do you see any evidence on the horizon that there is any kind of serious discussion anywhere amongst policymakers in the United States that maybe these are the kinds of programs that they need to take more seriously?
SANTENS: I think we're seeing this at a more local level right now, and that needs to, you know, trickle up from the — from the bottom, I think. I think the Chelsea Eats program is a really interesting example during the pandemic. Which was, essentially, a food bank was needing to give out food during the pandemic, and they just decided, "Well, wait a second, we don't want all these people lined up and potentially giving each other COVID, why don't we just get money to people?"
And that's now the subject of a documentary that people can go watch to even see what that was like. And so that was interesting and how they just decided that it just made sense to give money instead of food.
And I think we're also kind of seeing that, too, like in Maui with the response of Oprah and The Rock to start up the Maui People Fund. And their response was, "Hey, all these people who lost their homes, what do we do for them? Well, I think the best thing that we can do is provide them $1,200 a month for as long as we can." And I think that that kind of response is just becoming more typical. And as we also face a climate breakdown that we're going to see more and more of this thinking, "Well, what do people need? They need income security."
CHAKRABARTI: Right. Do you think that the sort of political stigma that's often been attached to federal assistance programs, that maybe attitudes about that across the board are changing a little bit because of the pandemic?
SANTENS: A little bit. But there's still, of course, so much of the stigma, and the stigma will always remain as long as we have some kind of means-tested, targeted program. As we just heard, that as soon as you draw a line, you determine that someone beneath that line is deserving and someone above is not, and that we're obviously making that mistake with so many people above the line need something, and they also need some amount of security.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, it's always confused me, though, because we have a UBI program if you're over 65, right? I mean, it's called social security. There's no means testing for that.
CHAKRABARTI: A billionaire can take — and no one seems to say, "Well, ah, it's a stigma that you're taking your social security payment every month." It just, it always — I wonder why we don't have that same sort of perspective for people who aren't on social security and perhaps need some stability in their lives as well.
But so, Erik, this brings me to another question. I just want to check again. That do you agree that something needs to be done given the rapidity of the disruption that we — a period of disruption we might be entering?
BRYNJOLFSSON: I do. I think that we need to rethink our policies a bit.
I just want to come back to LaShell's really interesting point there. I did a lot of study, a lot of analysis of a call center situation where an AI was rolled out to help call center operators, but it was not one of these ones where you talk to the robot, which we all find kind of frustrating. The AI was assisting the operators, giving them hints about how to answer certain types of questions.
And what happened was that people were about — up to 35% more productive working with the AI. So, you know, she said there are a lot of people waiting on hold, they could handle a lot more call volume. Interestingly, the least experienced operators got the biggest benefit. And so — and they were, they seemed to like the job better. They were less likely to quit.
Customers, the clients who are calling in, were happier. The customer sentiment went up. So it was a win all around. But I think it's an example that again that has been under stress is the idea of using these tools to augment people right now. I think that if we use the technology to help people to do their jobs better, it's a win in terms of helping them with their income, but also we don't have this elimination of jobs.
BRYNJOLFSSON: So my instinct is, for now, to focus a lot more on how we can use these technologies to make jobs better, make them more productive and have — keep people engaged in the workforce. When I look around, there's not a shortage of work that can only be done by humans, whether it's in health care or child care or the environment or the kind of things that LaShell was doing. So I would look to use the technology to help people like that.
CHAKRABARTI: There's two more quick points that I want to cover with both of you before we run out of time. So, Erik, just briefly, I think perhaps the most bracing thing you've said this hour is the lack of seriousness, let's put it that way, that some business leaders and I would say policy makers are approaching the coming decade with.
So, it's not just universal basic income, but supports and stabilities of all kinds that I think we need to really revamp and strengthen — safety nets, training programs. You've even talked about how the tax system works against our ability to weather the disruption that's coming. Can you just briefly explain that?
BRYNJOLFSSON: Sure. You know, so as I was saying, I think a big part of the solution is to keep people engaged in the workforce. And right now our tax system is designed actually to replace humans with capital. We tax labor about double the rate on the margin as capital. And as a consequence, if you're an entrepreneur, an executive and you look at two ways of solving a problem, the government is basically putting their thumb on the scale and saying, "We'll tax you a lot less if you find machines to replace those workers."
I don't see any policy reason, any, you know, economic reason why we should be skewing their decisions like that. Instead, we should have much more equal treatment of labor and capital and let people make decisions in ways that maybe keep people engaged in the workforce and have more investment in training and education rather than capital investment.
CHAKRABARTI: Hmm. Okay. That is so interesting. So it leads me to the final area of exploration I want to engage in, and that is, could there be problems that come up if we had some kind of authentically universal basic income scheme? And I'll limit it to this country for now. Because that's actually something that Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck — The Expanse co-authors that we heard from before — that's something they brought up in my interview with them.
And they mentioned a short story that they published in Wired about a half dozen years ago. And it's called "The Hunger After You're Fed." And in it, there's a fictional city called Sagrado. And Sagrado has universal basic income. People's material needs are met. But in the story, they write about the fact that a new kind of hunger arises.
As they write about it in the story, "Basic income had come to Sagrado, freeing it from want — but not, it seemed, from wanting." In other words, as Daniel told us, money can't answer a core question.
ABRAHAM: How can you build a meaningful life in a post-scarcity environment? How do you wind up having meaningful work if it's not being measured by how much money you make? When we start talking about this kind of universal system, "What does it mean to live a good life?" winds up being kind of the central question.
CHAKRABARTI: Or as one character in the story admits, "I needed for the illusion they needed, that someone cared what they did." Now, Scott, this is already something that communities in places have to deal with that have been, you know, depopulated, de-industrialized. You've been — we've been hearing about deaths of despair.
It's also like, chronic underemployment is a source of radicalism, no matter, you know, what a person's income is. We've even got billionaires who are saying capitalism isn't working for everyone and that could be a source of long-term social disruption. So in the last minute that we have here, I want to give you a chance to grapple with that. What do we do about the non material needs that arise when people lose the work that has given them meaning in the past?
SANTENS: I think it's helpful to look at this from a Maslow's hierarchy of needs perspective, where you make sure people have their basics and you do it in a way that empowers them.
And that's what basic income does is it's — it's people think of it as cash and maybe that's all it is, but it's so much more than that. This is the power to say no. It's the freedom to say yes. It's the ability to actually choose the work that you want to do to a greater degree. You can choose to do a job, but only if it pays you more or improves its situation, or you can actually create your own job or you can pursue unpaid work. And then there's so much work that's done right now that's entirely unpaid. Care work is unpaid, not even recognized in GDP.
So basic income, by providing people a floor, it's actually enabling. And we even saw that in a Stockton pilot, too, where recipients were twice as likely to find full time employment. So we have to just make sure that people have something. You can't tell a bootless man to pull himself up by his own bootstraps. Like, basic income is the boots to pursue what's meaningful in your life.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, Scott Santens, founder and president of the Income to Support All Foundation, thank you so much for joining us.
SANTENS: Thank you.
CHAKRABARTI: And Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the Stanford Digital Economy Lab, thank you as well for joining us to help us grapple with this AI and UBI question today, Erik.
BRYNJOLFSSON: Always a pleasure.