Tech Transformers

Tech CEOs back call for basic income as AI job losses threaten industry backlash

Andrzej Wojcicki | Science Photo Library | Getty Images

It's 2067 and robots have wiped out millions of jobs, AI is rampant, and unemployment is on the rise. Technology companies and CEOs have become public enemy number one.

This portrayal of the future is one tech executives are keen to avoid and has driven a growing chorus to support the idea of a universal basic income (UBI).

"There is going to be backlash when it comes to jobs," Sayantan Ghosal, an economics professor at the University of Glasgow who has written about UBI, told CNBC by phone.

U.S. technology firms have been investing heavily in research and development of AI. Tesla with driverless cars, Amazon with workerless shops, and the likes of Google developing smarter-than-human software.

Even Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, recently stated that he was "surprised" by the pace of AI developments.

Basic income 'necessary'

Over the past few months, major technology executives have come out in support of a UBI.

In an interview with CNBC in November, Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk backed the idea.

"There is a pretty good chance we end up with a universal basic income, or something like that, due to automation," Musk said. He reiterated his thoughts last week at the World Government Summit in Dubai, in which he said a UBI would be "necessary".

Elon Musk: Robots will take your jobs, government will have to pay your wage
Elon Musk: Robots will take your jobs, government will have to pay your wage

Marc Benioff, chief executive of Salesforce, warned of AI creating "digital refugees". At the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos in January, Benioff said there was "no clear path forward" on how to deal with the job displacement that will occur.

Other tech executives talked up the industry's responsibility.

"We should do our very best to train people for the jobs of the future," Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said at Davos.

Tech firms could be in 'firing line'

Experts say that the tech industry is growing more aware of its role in driving future automation and displacement, and companies don't want to be at the heart of any backlash from workers.

"That is a factor. The concern that suddenly public enemy number one will be robots and they (tech firms) will be in the firing line," Guy Standing, professorial research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, told CNBC by phone.

"But I think the sort of people I am meeting in the industry are more worried about the grotesque inequality and political backlash against that."

Marc Benioff, CEO of SalesForce at the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland.
David A. Grogan | CNBC

Standing is also a co-founder of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), a non-governmental organisation that promotes the policy. He is currently advising Y Combinator, a large U.S. start-up accelerator, on its basic income experiment. The firm is looking into a basic income experiment in Oakland.

How a basic income project might work in the future is unclear and the technology industry is still not sure. One idea is for governments to pay everyone a monthly sum. Experts say it will not disincentivize workers because it will provide a bare minimum of living. Instead, workers will still want to get a higher standard of living by working.

But any policy will be tough to fund.

"If you think of a basic income as providing a kind of floor to the standard of living for most people, then it will far exceed current benefit expenditure," Ghosal said.

'Robot tax'

One way for governments to pay for a UBI is through a sovereign wealth fund, where they take a small two to three percent equity stake in all the publicly listed companies in the country and earn money in that way.

Another idea that CEOs are slowly turning towards, is the taxing of "super profits", according to Standing. The academic told CNBC that a major technology CEO he spoke to said that he was convinced the industry would need to start making "concessions" in the form of taxing more profits.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates recently floated the idea of a "robot tax" as a way for governments to get more money in the future.

"If a human worker does $50,000 of work in a factory, that income is taxed," Gates said in a recent interview with Quartz. "If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you'd think we'd tax the robot at a similar level."

Academics like Standing and Ghosal say that like previous technological revolutions, workers are likely to be displaced, then retrain and get back into work. UBI would still let people work, but would give them some support as they find new skills.

"Universal basic income will provide a cushion and will allow people to rework and allow them to move and take advantage of new opportunities elsewhere," Ghosal said.