Life with A.I.

Elon Musk: Free cash handouts ‘will be necessary’ if robots take humans' jobs

Elon Musk
Joe Skipper | Reuters

Billionaire tech titan Elon Musk has been tweeting quite a lot of late — about everything from his philosophical mentors (Douglas Adams and Isaac Asimov) to his political leanings (he's a socialist).

But nearly lost in a flurry of tweets, Musk now says that universal basic income (UBI) — essentially, free cash handouts — "will be necessary over time if AI [artificial intelligence] takes over most human jobs."

That's what Musk tweeted Friday in response to a question from a Twitter user who asked him if he supported UBI.

Universal basic income is a cash handout distributed to the people of a state or region irrespective of employment status. In November 2016, Musk himself told CNBC automation would lead to the need for cash handouts.

"There is a pretty good chance we end up with a universal basic income, or something like that, due to automation," Musk told CNBC. "Yeah, I am not sure what else one would do. I think that is what would happen."

And Musk isn't the only Silicon Valley titan to surface the idea.

Billionaire Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has indicated his support for universal basic income as a way to inspire more entrepreneurial creativity.

"Let's face it: There is something wrong with our system when I can leave [Harvard] and make billions of dollars in 10 years, while millions of students can't afford to pay off their loans, let alone start a business," Zuckerberg said in his May 2017 commencement address at his alma mater. "Now it's our time to define a new social contract for our generation. We should explore ideas like universal basic income to give everyone a cushion to try new things."

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And billionaire serial entrepreneur Richard Branson has said he supports investigating the idea for similar reasons to Musk.

"With the acceleration of [artificial intelligence] and other new technology ... the world is changing fast," Branson wrote in an August 2017 post. "A lot of exciting new innovations are going to be created, which will generate a lot of opportunities and a lot of wealth, but there is a real danger it could also reduce the amount of jobs. This will make experimenting with ideas like basic income even more important in the years to come."

The idea of universal basic income is not exclusively the brain fodder of billionaires.

One young democratic presidential hopeful is banking his 2020 run for the White House on the idea of giving $1,000 per month to all citizens between the ages of 18 and 64. Entrepreneur and author Andrew Yang calls his payment "the Freedom Dividend."

Also, the young mayor of Stockton, Calif., Michael Tubbs, is piloting a universal basic income experiment as a way to alleviate poverty there. And UBI is officially part of the California Democratic Party's 2018 party platform — a move that could potentially bring the idea of universal basic income out of the purely theoretical stage and into practice.

While Musk believes that automation could make universal basic income a necessity, he also says it could create more equality in the marketplace by encouraging greater competition for consumers' money.

"Ironically, future automation will naturally lead to greater equality of consumption. Monopolies are true enemy of people. Competing to serve is good," Musk added on Twitter on Saturday.

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