The Basic Income Revolution

We in the West hear the same thing other and other again out of the mouths of our politicians: “we need to create jobs”. The current crisis in the West, with people facing massive unemployment or precarious and shitty jobs, is prompting policy makers to try lowering unemployment numbers if they want to remain in office, even if that means encouraging shale gas extraction or pipeline constructions. But in the long term, there will be fewer and fewer jobs. And that is something to celebrate.

We are heading toward a future of abundance, a post-scarcity world, where we can produce food, clothing, etc. for everyone with very little man-power. We are actually very close to being able to provide for everyone’s basic needs at a very low cost thanks to technological improvements to our methods of manufacturing. Automation has been the greatest achievement in production methods, from agriculture to aeronautics, since it has allowed to produce more with fewer people.
This process destroyed jobs. New ones took their place. Now, however, new jobs aren’t appearing fast enough to replace the old ones. Most farmers became factory workers because of farming’s automation. But now that farms and factories are mostly automated, most “white collar” jobs could soon disappear too, leaving only the highest skilled positions (engineers, surgeons, etc.) available for human beings to take.
There will always be jobs, even manual ones (for example, we can automate the process of making shoes, but there will always be people interested in making handcrafted shoes and selling them), but not enough to keep most of the population employed.
Most of the jobs we have will be replaced by robots in the not too distant future. I don’t think this is something we have to worry about. Machines are here to make our lives easier. If they can do our jobs, we would be fools not to let them! Machines can offer us the freedom to pursue our own interests: writing, shoemaking, you name it. They are here to do what we don’t want to do, because it is too dreadful, dangerous, or simply boring.
The fact that the robots are coming for our jobs means full employment is impossible. Sure, bureaucrats are coming up with bullshit jobs to try to hide the trend of rising technological unemployment, but it’s a desperate, unsustainable approach.
Today full employment makes no sense, and people are slowly starting to realize it. Some students in Japan and South Korea refuse to look for jobs after they graduate, because they find the job market too conservative and unfulfilling. Other people just aren’t exploiting their full intellectual potential, refusing to take part in a working environment that is both crazy and obsolete. They thus lead precarious, mostly unfulfilling lives.  It has to change. In a proto-post scarcity world, people should be able to lead good lives without employment.
How can we achieve this? Enters the Basic Income. Under a Universal Basic Income (UBI), every citizen, from his eighteenth birthday to his death, receives a monthly income from the government, whether he works or not. If he works, he gets to earn both his salary and his basic income. If he doesn’t work, the basic income has to be high enough to support his basic needs: housing, food, clothing, etc.
The UBI would allow everyone to lead a decent life.
The idea of a Universal Basic Income isn’t new, and has received the support of economists from the whole political spectrum. Even from libertarians and Silicon Valley venture capitalists.
As the Basic Income would take away the need for welfare programs, the money saved by not handing out welfare checks and not having a huge bureaucracy overseeing their distribution would in part fund the UBI. The rest of the money would come from other parts of the government’s budget, and would thus be funded by taxes.  While libertarians are more likely to argue for a rather low basic income (really allowing people just to survive on it) to keep taxes low, I’d argue for a more generous basic income allowing everyone to lead a satisfying, albeit modest, life on it. It is more than possible with our current tax rates, and even with lower tax rates if we make cuts in wasteful spending in the government (I know, that’s a pleonasm) – and I’m looking at you, Departments of Defense and Homeland Security -.
Another very important thing about the Universal Basic Income is that it has to be enshrined in the Constitution, so that government can’t put restrictions on it. If the UBI isn’t guaranteed by the Constitution, what keeps the government from deciding that some people can’t receive it? As Jacob T. Levy wrote over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, “If tomorrow the U.S. were to enact (but not constitutionalize) a $10,000 per year per person UBI, how long would it take for the first proposals for conditionality to be introduced in Congress? Not for felons in prison; not for felons after their terms are over; not for those who fail drug tests; not for the third or higher child of unemployed parents; not for high school drop-outs…”
You know they would do that.

So, the UBI: An income provided by the government (or ideally by an independent entity, like a cryptocurrency algorithm distributing money on a monthly basis to every citizen) and guaranteed by the Constitution that allows every citizen to lead a decent life whether he chooses to work or not. Where I live in France, a UBI of 1,100 € per month would be great (I pay 675€ for housing (including fees like water, gas, internet) + 400€ of food and diverse things each month). However the level of the UBI needs to take into account that some places are cheaper than others (if I lived in Paris, this 1,100€ UBI wouldn’t be sufficient).

What would happen if we enacted a UBI? Wouldn’t people just do nothing, and spend their days watching TV? We already have people who do mostly nothing all day and trick the welfare system to get by, but that’s not a lot of people. This is likely to continue under the UBI. A few people would indeed do nothing, but most people would either keep their jobs or find new ones, or dedicate themselves entirely to their passions.
The Basic Income subreddit is full of theories about what would happen if we had a UBI, such as this one from user aozeba: “For me, the point of UBI is to take people out of the workforce, so that we can stop trying to “create jobs” and start trying to create value.
If a robot can server burgers better than a team of low wage workers, then so be it. We shouldn’t stop automation simply because we are afraid of losing jobs. With a generous UBI, people can quit jobs they feel are pointless, and start working on whatever they are passionate about.
The cost of this, of course, is that some people inevitably will do nothing, but I think that a) that number of people will be smaller than we imagine and b) freeing the rest of humanity from drudgery is worth the cost of a few freeloaders.
I also believe that most people can only be a freeloader for so long before they get bored of it and find something useful/creative/interesting to do. And while they’re freeloading, they are also consumers, so it’s not like the money we give them is just going down the drain.”
People will follow their passions, and I don’t expect society to morph into the kind of dystopia Pixar humorously depicted in Wall-E, where the future-us are fat couch potatoes brain-washed by TV.
The ability to not work opens up a lot of possibilities for all of us. In ancient Greece, work was only authorized for slaves. “Noblemen” could dedicate themselves to thinking or exercising. Now the machines are kind of our “slaves”, and we should be able to follow our own interests instead of working just for our survival.

With the UBI, if you’re interested in building a company, and you thus get up at 6 in the morning and go to bed at 2am, you’re working, but not in the sense of “working so that I can put food on the table”.
If you intend to spend your days exercising and gardening, you can do that too, and it’s not a shame: you’re pursuing happiness, and if that means you don’t want a regular job, what’s the problem with that?
Our society right now is putting value in working just for work’s sake: the important thing is that you work, not that your work is making you happy. That’s terribly wrong. Work is a value only when it is directed towards one’s happiness. If you work hard because you love what you do, that’s amazing. If you work hard just because you have to, but would gladly do something else if you had the possibility, then that’s a shame, and the UBI would give you some kind of safety net so that you can quit and do something you like.

We need a Universal Basic Income, but with the current political landscape, with everyone focused on job creation and full employment and the value of working more to support the “economy”, a monster created by big corporations and their government friends, we will need a shift in our thinking to make the UBI happen. We perhaps need to start thinking more like Star Trek characters (see this amazing article on the economics of Star Trek, which was a great inspiration for this essay). To think more about happiness, fulfillment, discovery, than about survival. That’s what a XXIst century society should aim for.

I’ll leave you with this comment from “waffledave” on the Basic Income subreddit:

The reason I’ve always loved the Star Trek franchise is not so much for the science fiction, but the whole philosophy behind it. Particularly Picard’s sense of philosophy and beliefs.
What I find most facinating is the effect of the replicator on society on earth. Imagine, a machine that can create absolutely anything you want out of “nothing” (the idea is that light, energy and matter are all interchangeable). That means food is no longer scarce, nor does it need to be grown or farmed or produced. But besides food, you can make literally anything else. The newest smartphone, a huge TV, a book, a hockey stick, etc…
The whole idea is that this machine instantly eliminates materialism and consumerism. There is no need to buy anything because you can just replicate it. There is no need to “work” because you don’t need to buy anything anymore. The elites of the world allow it to happen because money no longer equals power.
Power is now measured on your worth as a person. Your intellect, creativity, strength, athleticism, bravery. And weakness doesn’t really exist, because instead of having to work to survive, you work to improve yourself.
Jobs still exist. They will always exist. A living being has a basic instinctual desire to want to “do stuff”. But the difference is that you do the job you WANT to do, not the job you NEED to do. I work in finance, and I enjoy my job. It’s challenging and fulfilling, and it pays me enough to support a lifestyle I enjoy. But if money was not an issue, I wouldn’t do this for a living. I’d probably be an artist or a writer. Those are the kinds of things that I’m passionate about.
In the Star Trek universe, that’s the kind of society the Earth has developed. Starfleet is all about exploration, and the characters are driven by a passion to explore and discover new worlds. It isn’t a job for them, it’s what they love to do.
When I have time off from work, I do spend most of it in front of the TV or playing video games or on the computer. But that’s because work is draining, physically, emotionally, mentally… I have little time and little energy left to put towards what I’m passionate about. I sincerely feel if I didn’t HAVE to work the job I do (for money reasons) I would have more left in the tank to dedicate towards art and music and writing.
Fingers crossed for 3-D printers to really take off…

What if Google’s Star Trek Computer was actually built by Apple?

As it has been said here, Google’s ultimate goal is to build a kind of Star Trek Computer, a device that would answer any kind of question you might want to ask it, and that would predict your future queries. Such a device would also make science tremendously faster. That’s why Google is trying to gather all the world’s knowledge (the best example of this massive collecting endeavor being Google Books), to make its Star Trek Computer a reality. In this quest, Google doesn’t have any serious competition.

But when it comes to the devices we use to access Google’s services, the competition is enormous. Android phones and tablets, iPhones, iPads, Windows Phones, Surface, Windows laptops, ChromeBooks, Macs…

I’d argue that Apple makes by far the best hardware out there. Despite its “small” screen, the iPhone 5S is the best smartphone on the market. The iPad is the best tablet and the MacBooks are the best laptops on the market. Since last week’s WWDC, Apple is now making the best software, too. By bringing major updates to iOS with iOS 8, and redesigning the Mac’s interface in OS X Yosemite, Apple now has a huge advance over Google.

Spotlight on iOS
Spotlight on iOS

iOS and OS X now work seamlessly together thanks to Continuity, which allow users to go from an iOS device to a Mac (and vice versa) and continue their task without any friction. Apple has come up with the best solution yet to make all our devices work great together, so that switching from one device to another is perfectly natural. iOS and OS X are gorgeous, minimalist operating systems, and are the state of the art in terms of simplicity and security.
That’s my opinion at least, but many people agree with me without being Apple fanboys.

So while Google’s Star Trek Computer will certainly be amazing, the perspective of having to use it in a web browser or on just average Android devices feels a bit odd. If Google and Apple cooperated, they could integrate the Star Trek Computer in Apple devices too. And that would be awesome.

First of all, Apple should reintegrate Google Maps to replace the inferior Maps app it developed. I mean, come on Apple! You know Google is better at this than you are, so unless you have a better service, stick with Google’s.

The new Spotlight on OS X and iOS 8 is the best interface to integrate Google search. For now Spotlight relies on Wikipedia, Bing, Apple Maps, news services, but not Google. It’s a promising first step, but integrating Knowledge Graph results and Google News, Images, etc, in Spotlight would make it much better. The simple Spotlight interface is very close to the Google homepage, in fact, but it’s system-wide: you can access it wherever you are in your device, while you need to have Chrome opened to use Google’s solution. Integrating Google’s services (which will ultimately form the Star Trek Computer) into Spotlight would make Macs, iPhones and iPads amazing “knowledge machines” with which you could quickly search through all humankind’s knowledge an answer to your question(s).

Spotlight on OS X
Spotlight on OS X
Spotlight uses a variety of sources, like Wikipedia, to answer users' queries
Spotlight uses a variety of sources, like Wikipedia, to answer users’ queries

The possibility to add widgets from the App Store in Notification Center both on iOS and OS X could allow Google to build a Google Now widget, enabling Apple users to have the great services Google Now offers to Android users without having to open the Chrome app again and again… And in iOS the “Extensibility” features for developers may allow Google to collect data from other apps to feed its Google Now widget (otherwise Google and Apple will have to work together to integrate Google Now in iOS).

To sum this up: Apple and Google, get your shit together, stop fighting over patents. You two can co-exist and cooperate to bring great products to your users. Google Search will ultimately become the fantasized Star Trek Computer App, while Apple should build the greatest devices for us to run this app.

Let’s build a monolith

We are one step away from the Star Trek Computer, the 2001 Monolith, whatever we call it

When Ahmed Saloum Boularaf opened his library to a reporter of The Christian Science Monitor, he wanted to share his fear with the entire world. Holding a rare, nearly 800 years old manuscript, he complained that if nothing is done to copy and preserve his collection, more than 1700 other manuscripts could be lost forever. Worse, Mister Boularaf lives in Tombouctou, Mali, where islamists related to Al Qaeda burnt libraries before leaving the city, pushed up north by french soldiers last february. Fortunately, the manuscripts in Timbuktu are alive and well, thanks to the bravoure and courage of the librarians there (see The New Republic’s article on this)

Copyright T160K

The war in Mali highlighted a not so rare phenomenon. Everyday on Earth, we probably lost forever books, scrolls, manuscripts, that were never duplicated, never digitized and that we won’t be able to recover. And it doesn’t happen only in Africa -Stanford’s library has already been damaged by floods twice, the recent JFK Library fire at Harvard could have been desastrous, and Canada’s Harper Government is destroying libraries around the country. 20 years ago, we could have said «what can we do about that? It is too expensive to digitize books». But this just isn’t true anymore. We now have the technology, thanks to companies like Google, and it is intolerable to lose whole sections of our knowledge when we have such cheap, reliable and performant processes available.

We don’t want the disaster of the Library of Alexandria to happen again

Sergey Brin described his vision of a «Library to last forever» in an op-ed contribution in The New York Times in 2009,  while Google was fighting the Author’s Guild in court over alleged abusive practices with its Google Books project.

We can’t let one company alone control our knowledge, but there are laws protecting us from this. And the lawsuits against Google Books were all about editor’s profits, not at all about this political question. We should let Google digitize every book on this planet. Humanity would tremendously benefit from being given access to such a universal library. Google should be allowed to digitize books, manuscripts (like the Dead Sea Scrolls), and every piece of written knowledge we have, like Mister Boularaf’s library.

Of course, Google will have to put every book that is in the public domain in its service for free, and it will have to find some compromises over orphan books. And for works under copyright, Google Books is a great bookstore already.

Because knowledge is power, what if Google decides to take the whole world hostage of its service? I think this won’t happen, there are laws and vigilant individuals and organizations protecting us from that, fighting for the right to access works in the public domain without any fee. Plus, the books/documents Google digitized are still available in their material form. And I think that we are today being taken hostages by libraries and editors, who are slowing the pace of digitization and of «remote access to culture». By keeping most of the world’s knowledge away from the general public, libraries and editors are already taking us hostage. And they see Google as a threat to their monopoly over knowledge.

To compete with Google Books, the US launched the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), and the European Union launched Europeana, which are both digital librairies. The problem is, they are digitizing books really, really slowly. And when you are looking for a book, you must look at at least two different websites, instead of just typing your querie in Google…

A remarquable BBC documentary called Google and the World Brain recently discussed all these concerns. Yet I think the benefits we’ll have with a Google Universal Library are greater than the risks of monopoly.

In order to make a universal library possible, we have to let Google make its search engine even more intelligent, by extracting knowledge from the digitized books. Every Google user – that is, more than a seventh of the world’s population every month, who can claim that except Google?- will be able to access hundreds of years of knowledge via a simple Google Search.

Jonathon Keats suggested in Wired this year that Google should receive a Literature Nobel Prize for the Google Books project. I believe he’s absolutely right. His words speak for themselves:
“Copyright law was created to balance the interests of authors and the public. Giving Google the Nobel Prize would make a powerful statement in favor of fair use.
According to Nobel’s will, the accolade is to be awarded to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” Google Books provides greater literary benefit to more people than any single title or oeuvre. Whatever your taste in reading, you’re a beneficiary, as Google’s digitization protects books from hurricanes and fires and censorship by repressive regimes. There could be as many as 20 million volumes in the public domain, and already more than 2 million of them—from Utopia to Rights of Man—can be downloaded free (with help from proxy servers, if necessary) in Iran, Syria, and China. (In that respect, Google stands in marked contrast to last year’s Nobel laureate, the Chinese novelist Mo Yan, a Communist Party favorite who recently compared state censorship to airport security checks. That doesn’t exactly move literature in an ideal direction.)”

On November 13th 2013, Google won its lawsuit against the Author’s Guild. Judge Chin said: “Google Books provides significant public benefits. It advances the progress of the arts and sciences, while maintaining respectful consideration for the rights of authors and other creative individuals, and without adversely impacting the rights of copyright holders.” And he’s right. Google Books makes books more accessible. Their content is searchable, meaning that you can now search not only for book titles but for sentences contained inside the actual text with Google Search! With the end of this issue, Google probably has much more power to build a Universal Library. And a Universal Library would be really useful for Google to build a super smart Star Trek-like AI, a kind of Digital Aristotle.

The competitors trying to build the Universal Library

books_logo_lg tumblr_mlgl3iKdPt1qcoev6o1_500

A Slate article  recently confirmed that Google’s ultimate goal is to create the Star Trek Computer. Nor Europeana nor the DPLA will ever be able to create such a service.

Now, in order to build a Star Trek Computer fueled by a Universal Library, Google will need to digitize a very special kind of litterature. That is, scientific litterature. Yet this particular field will represent some big challenges for Google.

Entering the academic publishing world is strange. You discover a weird field, where two leading editors control nearly the whole process of peer reviewed publishing. These two giants are the dutch Elsevier and the german Springer. Last year, the mathematician Timothy Gowers launched a boycott of Elsevier’s journals, followed by many researchers. He claimed that Elsevier was making enormous profits on unpaid authors and reviewers, and that its practice of «bundling» journals together was a terrible threat to the shrinking budgets of libraries. Since Elsevier owns most of the top peer reviewed journals, where could researchers publish their work?

It turns out that since 2008, a movement called Open Access has become more and more important. The concept is simple: the author has to pay a fee to the editor to publish his work, but the paper is then freely distributed online. Open Access is the best thing that has happened to the scientific publishing industry since Gutenberg. You can read the Open Access Manifesto wrote by the late Aaron Swartz, which is one of the most correctly written statement about freeing knowledge from ivory towers that I can think of.

Now as the scientific knowledge is contained in all these journals, some of them in Open Access, but the vast majority in standard «premium» access, Google will have to integrate all of that in order to build the Star Trek Computer.

Elsevier, Springer, Nature, all of them have online archives. But again, we need a single place, so that it will be easier to find say, all the papers published on Curiosity’s findings on Mars. Google can be this single place. It can distribute Open Access works for free, and non Open Access papers for the price the editor sets, while making all these papers more visible, and more importantly, searchable.

Once all these papers are searchable, we can easily imagine a researcher simply typing a Google querie and seing the articles he seeks ranked in a pertinent order, thanks to Google’s algorithms. As holders of the accumulation of hundreds of years of scientific works, it is the responsibility of editors to share their works so that we can build a universal library without violating their rights, even if Open Access is the way to go.

Papers in Open Access will be much more downloaded and cited than others, proving to editors that this publishing model can boost the Impact Factor of their journals.

This is a call to editors and to Google. We have the infrastructures, we have the technology, we lack a common, unifying goal of making available the wealth of our knowledge to everybody in this world. We lack the will to create such a service that would change the way we conduct science. Just imagine our most brilliant minds being able to look at everything that’s been written on everything. Whether these brilliant minds are inside the Harvard Library, in rural China or in Mali doesn’t matter: they would just need an internet connection. We can hope that HIV could be cured faster thanks to this shared wealth of knowledge for example.

It is very idealistic of course, since many people still can’t get access to the Internet, or since one billion people can’t eat enough food everyday. But this is where we need to take science, where we need to take the humanities. Where we need to take our knowledge.

Now that we saw that the biggest ivory towers keeping knowledge away from the general public are, ironically, libraries and publishers, and that a company such as Google could help them achieve their true goal of making knowledge more accessible, we have to realize that the biggest ivory tower of all perhaps is Earth.

Our fragile little planet ties the future of our Knowledge to its existence

What would happen to all of our knowledge if Earth was destroyed tomorrow by an asteroid? The last asteroid that came close to Earth, DA14, was just 17,200 miles away from a global disaster. And a meteor recently crashed in Siberia, damaging many buildings and causing injuries to more than a thousand people. What would remain of humanity if we were unable to detect an asteroid? Maybe a few buildings, a few people? In fact, most relics of our civilization would be in space: a few probes on the Moon (including Apollo modules), on Mars, and our ambassadors outside the Solar System: Voyager 1 & 2 (Matthew Battles wrote a story on these two probes in Aeon Magazine)

What would remain of our knowledge? Perhaps the Golden Record on the Voyager probes, carrying a few hours of sounds and a few pictures of the Earth. That is, nothing compared to the vast amount of knowledge we accumulated over centuries.

Voyager 1, one of the two ambassadors of our Knowledge to the stars

Our most resistant ivory tower, keeping us from preserving our knowledge for the millions of years to come, is actually Spaceship Earth. If we lose it, and this could happen at nearly any time, the tireless work of millions of scientists to understand our world, to give new knowledge to future generations, helping them make better decisions, would have been totally useless. Even if humanity disappears suddenly, it is interesting to preserve our knowledge, in the case another civilization encounters the remains of our existence. This was the goal Carl Sagan had with the Voyager Golden Record, but he didn’t have the technology we have nowadays.

Escaping this last ivory tower means becoming a «multi-planet» species, which thanks to entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and his company Space X could happen quite soon. We need to have literally all our knowledge stored (on Mars let’s say); that is, having a copy of the Star Trek Computer and of the Google Universal Library on another planet than Earth.

Having our knowledge on Earth AND on Mars would significantly increase our chances of being able to carry on scientific research and transmit our knowledge even if a global cataclysm was to hit the Earth.

The best way to preserve our Knowledge: creating copies of it, storing them in different places. Just like the hard drive of your computer

The monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey represent the kind of thing we should build. The civilization that built these monoliths could even have disappeared, their knowledge is preserved forever (monoliths can last for millions of years). Building a monolith in my opinion is the act of storing all our knowledge in a sustainable manner in a single place. Today this kind of place would be a self sustaining data center for example. We lack some technology, because data centers can’t run without humans as of today, but we might be able to build automated data centers in the future, so that we could create our own monoliths one day; thus making our knowledge virtually immortal.

In order to succeed, we need first to build the Star Trek Computer, the monolith being the version of the Star Trek Computer to last forever. We need to get every book digitized and stored in a secured place. Google has already shown its ability to do that.

Once we’ll have done that on Earth, maybe we’ll be able to spread to Mars. If in ten years, the first martian colony is established; if in ten years, we complete the digital inventory of our knowledge and build the Star Trek Computer, then we’ll be ready. We’ll be ready to jump into the 21st century, ready to make our knowledge sustainable – you know, just in case.

The monolith is the ultimate artifact of our Knowledge. The complete inventory of what we know as a species
Copyright MGM Pictures/ Warner Bros. (2001 A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick)