Giving cash directly to poor people has been shown to alleviate poverty in countries like Brazil, Mexico and India. And now, techies like Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes and startup incubator Y Combinator are beginning to advocate for similar policies in the U.S.
Often lumped under the label of “universal basic income,” but not always universal in fact, these policies would give everyone (or everyone under a certain income level) enough money to stay above the poverty line, but not so much that they would be able to stop working. On the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, journalist Annie Lowrey explained why the tech sector has started talking about this seriously: “They’re terrified” of the future they might create.
“They’re like, ‘This world will be better, but not if everybody is miserable,’” said Lowrey, the author of a new book titled “Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World.”
“They are like, ‘What is going to happen with AI is, you’re going to get this kind of flywheel-type effect where technologies are going to be self-improving, and so anything automated is all of a sudden going to be done by a machine,’” she added. “A lot of them point to trucks and taxis as being kind of like a first vanguard of this, but then they say, ‘Why not anything else? What if every shop you walk into has nobody in it because a robot is restocking? What if we need way fewer nurses and doctors because an AI-assisted system is just so much better at diagnosing and curing you?’”
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On the new podcast, Lowrey acknowledged that the chances of Americans embracing a nationwide UBI in the near future are slim to nil. But she predicted that some solidly liberal states with pressing poverty problems, like California and Hawaii, might begin to run experiments that will inform the rest of the country.
“Culturally, we are not even close to something like this where we say, ‘You know what? We’re okay paying taxes for somebody to get money for free, for nothing back,’” Lowrey said of the U.S. as a whole. “So I think it would be a big cultural change, and I think that that would have to come through something like, you know, robots taking all our jobs.”
In other words: Popular opinion could change drastically in the event of a technological leap forward that causes mass unemployment, and the companies that cause that disruption will be expected to respond, as well.
“Let’s say that there’s a company — and maybe it’s one of the self-driving, Waymo or something — and Waymo, all of a sudden, is responsible for putting 30,000 people out of a job in one month,” she said. “I think at that point they are going to feel a lot of political pressure to say, ‘Here’s the stuff that we’re doing to not just help higher-income people scoot around San Francisco a little bit easier. Here’s what we’re doing.’”
However, the people of some areas — San Francisco among them — wouldn’t be able to rely on cash handouts alone to get by.
“You have a city that is increasingly unlivable for anybody except for people who are so insensitive to the prices of things, because they’re, I mean, they are, they’re manufacturing just such extraordinary wealth out here,” Lowrey said. “You can’t just give people money, exactly. They need housing. They need supportive services, they might need literacy or job-training readiness programs, and so the U.S. has some of these things, but not others.”
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This article originally appeared on Recode.net.