By Carolyn Scott

Can Robots Help us Rediscover What it Means to Be Human?

Self-driving trucks, automated checkouts, delivery drones, entire factories run by a workforce of robots. This is the new industrial revolution, and aside from sounding like the start of a sci-fi thriller, the threat of automated workplaces is a genuine concern to many across the globe. As new technologies revolutionise many industries, job security comes under fire.

However, isn’t the fact that automated systems are now able to take on many of the low paid, manual labour jobs that not many people would ever consider to be fulfilling or rewarding careers something to be celebrated?

“Absolutely, it’s absolutely amazing, and too often it’s framed like it’s something to be afraid of,” says Dr Ben Simmons, Director of the Citizen’s Basic Income Network Scotland (CBINS). “Automation is just a tool like any other: if we had a hundred people digging with their hands to make a ditch, then someone said “I’ve got a spade,” no one would say: “Oh no, get rid of the spade, we need these jobs.””

Head shot of Ben Simmons
Dr Ben Simmons

To Ben, the rise of automation is about making sure that those who were previously employed in emotionally unfulfilling jobs can instead do something useful and rewarding. One major change that could allow for that to happen is the introduction of a Citizen’s Basic Income (CBI).

The idea of a basic income for all, often called a Universal Basic Income, is a centuries-old idea, referenced in Thomas More’s 16th Century book Utopia, and forming a central theme in Thomas Paine’s 19th Century work The Rights of Man. It’s based on the simple idea that every citizen is paid a basic income, completely unconditionally. It is not taken away as their situation changes, it is applied to every person from birth. Yet despite being advocated by prominent thinkers for centuries the idea just hasn’t quite taken off... yet.

The Scottish Government recently announced a series of trials of a basic income system in four Local Authorities. Alongside numerous international trials, Basic Income seems to be gaining traction within political establishments. But why now? Could it be that the threat of automated workforces is reaching those unused to worrying about being reliant on state support?

Now, it's the people who previously thought they would never need to rely on Social Security recognising that they are now the ones in the crosshairs.

Dr Simmons relates the new interest in Basic Income in establishment politics to a “second wave” of job losses through another restructuring of society akin to the impact the 20th Century industrial revolution had on the working classes, and, looking further back, the destruction of the agrarian society in the North of Scotland through the Highland Clearances.

“I think for most of the deprived communities that would benefit the most from basic income, this isn't news. We've seen manufacturing get stripped away and if you go on a drive around the North Coast 500 in Scotland [a 516-mile scenic route around the north coast of Scotland] you could easily just write a book called “This is Where the Heron Used to be”, because you've seen the jobs that whole communities depended on all of a sudden get stripped away. This is just a white-collar version of that - so it's completely understandable.

“We've seen the impact of not having a basic income, and the fact you've got multi-generational unemployment. It's not a “what if?”, it's not a speculative "what could happen?" - it's the second wave, or a repeat, of something that was devastating. Now, it's the people who previously thought they would never need to rely on Social Security recognising that they are now the ones in the crosshairs, and having seen what happens to people who aren't supported adequately - I think that brings a lot of the motivation out of it.

“It's philanthropy with self-interest I think, a kind of crucial intersection, which I think is probably where policy gets made.”

It's on the status quo to defend itself, that's why basic income works.

The biggest challenge to those who support drastic changes to any economic model is that their idea is a change to the status quo. Society has conditioned us to favour the status quo and to fear change. Yet, given how much the status quo is changing, through the coming of the Information Age and this new industrial revolution, now could be the time for a mass reorganising of our Social Security and welfare systems - in fact, that might be absolutely vital. And, to Ben, it’s no longer organisations like his, CBINS, that need to justify the benefit of changes such as the introduction of a basic income - it’s on those in favour of the status quo to justify not adopting new models.

“The advantage of basic income is that it's not a complicated idea - if it was a complicated economic position and you had to be really brainy and educated to understand how it could possibly work then, yeah, it would be on us to try and justify the complexity of it. But, because it's so simple it's on the status quo to defend itself and that's where it falls down.

“No one is coming to us saying "if we had a basic income we would want to replace it with a thousand different measurements at all times of everyone's lives, it would be much better" - you'd laugh them out of the room. It's on the status quo to defend itself, that's why basic income works. It's so simple that you can't pretend it's something other than which it is, which is just an elegant solution.”

Despite being a fairly simple idea, the implementation of basic income brings a multitude of complexities around its delivery and the taxation required to support it. However, it offers the very real possibility of releasing workers from the drudgery of mundane, repetitive, and unfulfilling work. They could be free to do what humans do best: care for each other, be creative, work cooperatively. The robots might, indeed, allow us to rediscover what it means to be human.

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