Universal basic income touted as answer to automation

By: - July 16, 2018 5:59 am

Vdara Relay robots, Fetch and Jett (Vdara website)

Earlier this month, the Vdara Hotel & Spa added two relay robots that deliver snacks, sundries and spa products directly to guest suites. While charmingly decorated as a Golden Retriever and Dalmatian dog with Vdara-themed collars, the new robots — named Fetch and Jett — may be a sign of what’s next for Las Vegas.

Closeup of Vdara relay robot
Close-up shot of one of Vdara’s relay robots.

In 20 years, about 65 percent of the city’s jobs could be automated, according to a study by the Institute for Spatial Economic Analysis. That projection may be an outlier – the Organization for Economic for Cooperation and Development, for instance, projects only 10 percent of U.S. jobs are vulnerable to automation.

Still, the highest areas of employment in Las Vegas are in low-skilled service positions like office and administrative support, retail sales, food preparation and serving related occupations — repetitive and routine tasks ripe for automation.

This isn’t news to employees. When contracts between the Culinary and Bartenders unions and many large hospitality companies expired earlier this year, protections against automation were among the topics negotiated in the new five-year contracts.

On Saturday, FreedomFest, which dubs itself as the largest independent and nonpartisan gathering of free minds, held a panel on universal basic income — a guaranteed, government provided income for everyone. Almost instantly, panelists spiraled into a debate about the future of automation in the labor market.

“Anyone that has any business sense and is living in the Bay Area realizes the risk of automation and realizes the risk that jobs are going to be taken,” said Zoltan Istvan, an author who ran for California governor in 2018 on a trans-humanism platform.

Automation in Las Vegas has already replaced gaming jobs. Back when slot machines only took coins, people roamed casino floors making change, a job that doesn’t exist anymore. As slot machines evolve and thrive, less human-run table games line the casino floors. Even simple technologies like check-in kiosks have brought further automation to the Strip.

“It’s not something that’s going to happen overnight but it’s also something we must recognize,” Istvan said. “In fact, I often say, Trump talks a lot about immigrants taking jobs. In 2016, (it was) one of his main platforms. I don’t believe that’s the case. I think the case is that technology is already dramatically affecting the world. Technology and automation are already coming for our jobs.”

About 52.2 million (or 21.3 percent) people in the U.S. participate in government assistance programs each month, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report. Istvan said jumping to a universal income based model isn’t as big a step as one might believe based on current government assistance statistics.

“We don’t support it because we’re trying to be humanitarians,” Istvan said. “I support it because I am so worried that we are going to wake up in 15 to 20 years and tens of millions of jobs are going to be lost due to the fact that robots are simply cheaper and replaced human labor.”

Istvan proposed a libertarian-friendly version of universal basic income that involves leasing out all federally owned land and redistributing that income to all Americans. Implementing this fringe, mostly theoretical idea would have massive impacts for Nevada, where 84.9 percent of land is government owned. Istvan argues that universal basic income would reduce government by ending other government benefit programs like Social Security and Medicaid.

Istvan’s idea wasn’t well received at FreedomFest, but the idea of universal basic income has slowly been gaining steam nationally, especially in progressive circles.

Barbara Kolm, economist and president of the Hayek Institute, a think tank that promotes individual freedom, said the risk of automation would not move her to support universal basic income.

“UBI will not solve the problem,” she added.

Veronica de Rugy, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center, said the fear of automation has long plagued people’s minds. She noted that manufacturing jobs have largely disappeared due to automation but that innovation should not be feared.

“Every generation warned against the dramatic shift of innovative force,” she said. “It’s a fear that never materializes.”

While de Rugy believes automation may be a source for the destruction of low-skill jobs in the future she said automation could also be a force that raises individuals standard of living by reducing the cost of everything from food to housing and even energy.

“There are so many positive things that can come out of A.I.,” de Rugy said. “Robots are everywhere.”

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Jeniffer Solis
Jeniffer Solis

Jeniffer was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada where she attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before graduating in 2017 with a B.A in Journalism and Media Studies.