Two issues that seem set to be big topics of debate in 2017 are the impact of automation on the future of work and the question of whether some form of Universal Basic Income (UBI) payment would be the best way to meet the future welfare needs of society. These issues are separate, but clearly linked: the immediate question when one posits a future in which the majority of jobs are far more effectively and cheaply done by machines is how the people who used to do those jobs are now supposed to afford to live, which is where UBI comes in as one possible solution.
The idea that machines might replace human workers in manual jobs is not, of course, new. A 2016 report by the UK Government’s Science an Technology Select Committee noted that “Concerns about machines ‘taking jobs’ and eliminating the need for human labour have persisted for centuries.” And one has only to think about the original Luddites (although before anyone feels the need to point it out, I am aware that the Luddites were protesting more against the improper use of new technology than against the technology itself, so it is not a perfect example).
However, recent technological advances, particularly in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI) where the advent of new ‘deep learning’ algorithms has marked a step-change, have led to the suggestion that knowledge-based jobs could be just as much at risk of replacement by machines. Famously, in 2013, researchers at Oxford University’s Martin School produced a paper ranking over 700 named professions in terms of how likely they were to be replaced by computers. (The BBC also produced a tool that allows you to type in your own profession and find out how likely it is that your job will be taken by a robot in the future, which is handy…). And just last year the World Economic Forum estimated that over 5 million jobs across 15 developed nations could be lost due to technological changes by 2020.
In a world of Big Data where the volume of information to be processed increasingly exceeds the limits of what humans can handle, new forms of AI have a distinct advantage in many areas. We can already see this starting to be reflected in certain industries: for example, some banks have begun to experiment with using AI for their financial research and even for giving financial advice to clients.
The phenomenon will not be restricted to computer-based jobs, either. The massive increase in the number of ‘smart’ devices that make up the ‘Internet of Things’ means that AI will soon permeate many aspects of the physical as well as online world. As a result many non computer-based, skilled jobs could also be performed by objects and machines controlled by AI.
This is clearly a major technological trend with far-reaching implications for society. But our focus here is on what it means for philanthropy and the work of charities. As such, I think there are five key possibilities to consider.
1)Automation will create new resources that can be used for traditional philanthropy
The internet of things combined with a blockchain-based infrastructure will result in a massive increase in the volume of automated or AI-controlled transactions. Some of the proceeds from these transactions could be used to generate money for charity, a bit like current electronic rounding schemes or ATM giving, but on a far bigger scale (For more on this see my previous blog on “Philanthropy, the blockchain and the Internet of Things”). If even a tiny fraction of IoT transactions were used to generate philanthropic money, this could still result in a significant new source of income for charities.
There is still a question about how the recipients of these micro-donations would be chosen. At first, it is almost certain that smart object would still be owned in a traditional sense, so the most likely scenario is that the human owners would be able to stipulate the recipient charities. However, this may change in the future, as we shall see.
2)Automation will create new resources that can be used for philanthropy by AIs themselves
As AI becomes more sophisticated and the amount of data on social needs and the impact of charitable organisations increases, we may choose to outsource decisions about how best to allocate our philanthropic resources to AI (much like we will cede control in many other areas of our lives). This may result in an entirely new model of ‘algorithmic philanthropy’, as we have explored in previous blog posts (e.g. this one) and reports.
3)Levels of monetary giving will change dramatically
If the future sees many jobs – and even entire industries – being replaced by artificial intelligences and smart machines, then it may no longer be possible for those who lose out simply to “get a different job”. The question then, in a world primarily predicated on capitalism and the notion of earned income, is how do those people survive?
This is where the idea of Universal Basic Income comes in. In this context, UBI is mooted as a mechanism by which governments could ensure the welfare needs of their citizens in a future where the majority of labour is automated and thus most people do not have traditional jobs (see e.g. this article from the FT for more on this idea).
The pertinent question for us is what this might mean for charitable giving. And the answer will depend very largely on the actual design and implementation of the UBI system. For example, if UBI is merely introduced to a system in which people have the ability to earn their own wealth relatively easily, then it would seem unlikely to make a huge difference, as many people will still have disposable wealth.
However, let’s consider for a moment the more radical scenario in which automation has exceeded a tipping point and the majority of citizens are reliant on some form of UBI for their income, with little or no means to earn their own money in addition. In this scenario there are at least three possibilities;
i) Charitable giving dramatically declines, or even disappears. This could happen either if UBI is set at such a level that it caters for people’s basic needs but does not leave them with any disposable assets, or if the payments are made in such a way that there is little discretion in how to spend them (i.e. they are required to be spent on specific welfare items and services).
ii) Charitable giving increases. This could happen if there was a sufficiently generous UBI with no restrictions on how it was spent. Given that people would have more time to focus on social action (see point 4 below) and the money would be unearned, it is possible that people’s willingness to give it away would be greater than it is currently and hence the overall level of giving might increase.
iii) Charitable giving is factored into the system of UBI. If there were a situation closer to i) than ii), it is still possible that charitable giving could continue to exist if it were deliberately built into the design of the system. This might be by ensuring that at least a certain portion of the UBI is free to be spent however an individual chooses, on the assumption that maintaining a sense of personal agency is important and at least some people will choose to give it away for the benefit of other. Or it might be by directly stipulating that a certain portion of the UBI has to go to charity but allowing individuals to retain discretion over the choice of beneficiary. This may seem slightly far-fetched, but in fact is very similar to the model of “percentage philanthropy” that has been in place in some countries (primarily former Eastern bloc ones) for a number of years.
4)There will be an increase in volunteering and a change in its nature
Apart from providing a solution to the problem of welfare provision in a hypothetical future scenario where people have been replaced by intelligent machines, UBI is argued to bring other potential benefits that can be used to make the case for its introduction right now. One of these is that it could free people up to focus on pursuits other than work, and thereby unleash an explosion in creativity and learning, as people have more time to dedicate to artistic and academic pursuits. This is essentially the rationale behind the case for UBI made by the RSA in its report “Creative citizen, creative state: The principled and pragmatic case for a Universal Basic Income” back in 2015.
The same argument surely applies to social action. Assuming that UBI has not led to the end of all social problems (see point 5 below), then there will still be issues for charities and their supporters to address. And those supporters will now find themselves with far more time at their disposal to focus on these challenges if they wish. (They may at the same time have far fewer monetary resources, as outlined above).
This means that volunteering could increase dramatically. And the nature of the volunteer pool would also change significantly, because volunteering would no longer be something that people had to fit around work commitments or wait until retirement to get fully involved in. This could represent a paradigm shift for the idea of charity, as we move from a model where expert organisations look to fundraise from supporters or involve them in pre-determined, discrete volunteer opportunities to a model in which supporters are involved in directing and delivering far more substantive, long-term voluntary services and campaigns.
5)There will be a decrease in poverty and inequality-related social issues
Another argument put forward in favour of UBI is that it could prove more effective than current systems of means-tested welfare at reducing poverty and inequality. Let’s assume for a moment that this is true in a fairly extreme form, and that an automated future in which UBI has been implemented is one in which there is little or no poverty or inequality. The question is: would there still be any work left for charities and philanthropists to do?
Addressing poverty is the quintessential charitable purpose. It also underpins many other related purposes, because poverty is a contributing factor to so many of them. Likewise the modern focus on addressing income inequality is driven partly by the fact that it can be identified as a root cause of so many other issues. So if we ‘solved’ poverty and inequality, would that also solve all other problems and thereby make charity redundant?
The answer is almost certainly no. For a start, while it is true that many of the problems addressed by the work of charities can be traced back to the root causes of poverty and inequality, it is certainly not true of all of them. What about wildlife conservation, preserving heritage, promoting the arts, or treating genetic diseases? It seems like these would still require attention in an equal society with no poverty.
It is worth noting that the question of whether “solving” poverty would mean the end of charity has been considered in practical terms before. At the founding of the welfare state in the UK in the late 1940s, there was much debate about what this might mean for the role of philanthropy and voluntary provision (as there was a widespread assumption that government welfare provision would make previous voluntary efforts in many areas obsolete).
William Beveridge, one of the key intellectual architects of the welfare state, even published an entire book on this question (1948’s Voluntary Action), in which he concluded that whilst many traditional functions of the voluntary sector might be taken over by the machinery of state-provided welfare, there would be many remaining needs that should be addressed through voluntary action. For Beveridge, this included health needs such as chronic illness and disability, social needs such as ageing or offender rehabilitation, and also leisure pursuits such as sports and the arts.
Whilst we may not agree with the exact needs that Beveridge identified as remaining in a system of state welfare provision, the same basic argument applies. There are problems and activities whose solution or promotion is currently delivered primarily through philanthropic means, and one would assume that this would continue to be the case even if everyone were in receipt of a Universal Basic Income.
Artificial intelligence is not going to replace most of our jobs tomorrow, or even next year (probably…). Likewise, it doesn’t seem likely that governments across the world are suddenly going to start introducing Universal Basic Income for their citizens. However, it is clear that the use of AI is increasing at an accelerating rate, and we are also seeing a growing number of people advocating the idea of UBI as a long-term solution to the challenges that automation poses for the future of world (including influential tech entrepreneur Elon Musk and AI expert Andrew Ng, who was the key architect of Google’s deep learning algorithm).
We have also begun to see the launch of fairly large-scale pilots of UBI (including the recently-announced one in Finland). Given how fundamentally the interplay of these two developments could reshape our society and how profound their impact on philanthropy might be, it seems well worth thinking through some of the implications ahead of time.