In Brief
  • Elon Musk believes artificial intelligence that is much smarter than the smartest human on Earth could result in dangerous situations.
  • Musk argues that the government must introduce a universal basic income program in order to compensate for automation.

Recently, Elon Musk had the chance to share his thoughts on universal basic income (UBI) at the World Government Summit in Dubai. At the Summit, Musk had the opportunity to talk about the future, and the challenges the world will face in the next hundred years – including artificial intelligence (AI), automation, and the job displacement expected to come with it.

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When asked about the challenges civilization is set to face in the near future, Musk began by noting the threat of artificial intelligences that surpass humanity.

He stated, “deep artificial intelligence, or artificial general intelligence, where you can have artificial intelligence that is much smarter than the smartest human on Earth, this is a dangerous situation.”

He continued by noting the importance of advancing our research into AI with caution: “I think we need to be very careful in how we adopt artificial intelligence and that we make sure that researchers don’t get carried away. Sometimes what will happen is a scientist will get so engrossed in their work that they don’t really realize the ramifications of what they’re doing.”

Musk also relayed concerns that autonomous technology will impact jobs, and he noted that we will likely have intelligent, massive-scale automation for transportation relatively soon—within the next few decades, in fact: “Twenty years is a short period of time to have something like 12-15 percent of the workforce be unemployed,” he said, pointing out the extent of how automation will disrupt car-based transportation specifically.

However, displacement due to automation isn’t just limited to transportation, it will sweep across a number of industries, and Musk argues that the government must introduce a UBI program in order to compensate for this. “I don’t think we’re going to have a choice,” he said. “I think it’s going to be necessary. There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better.”

Musk believes, however, that the issue goes deeper:

[The] much harder challenge is: How will people then have meaning? A lot of people derive meaning from their employment. If you’re not needed, what is the meaning? Do you feel useless? That is a much harder problem to deal with. How do we ensure the future is a future that we want, that we still like?

As the UBI discussion continues, various nations and institutions have already began their own pilot programs to test the model. Finland, for example, started its pioneering UBI program this year, which was launched by the federal social security institution, Kela. It will give out €560 ($587) a month, tax free, to 2,000 Finns that were randomly selected. Similarly, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s philanthropic investment firm has given $493,000 to help fund a universal basic income program in Kenya.

In a couple of years (or less?), there might be enough data from these experiments for us to consider just how effective a solution UBI truly is…and whether or not Musk is right.