• Tim McGuckin

Universal Basic MaaS

Universal Basic Income is a form of social safeguard where all citizens receive a regular, unconditional sum of money from a government independent of any other income. It is an old concept but lately it has been held out in the context of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotization (“AI/R”) because many of us could become structurally unemployed in the next decades due to AI/R. One big element of AI/R in my profession is Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAV). And a significant theme across my professional life has been the ‘user-pays’ principle, a pricing approach based on the idea that the most efficient allocation of resources occurs when people who use a good pay the full cost of what they consume.

While I doubt most readers will be impacted just yet by AI/R, millions of good jobs may disappear within a decade when drivers are no longer required to operate vehicles. This trend - driven by two powerful cultural forces, namely continuous innovation and cost-cutting - seems irreversible. More people – not just drivers – will lose their ability to fully cover the cost of living.

Despite the significant benefits CAV and AI/R, to include great strides in safety and potential reduction in the costs of car ownership, the unemployed will still need mobility: to shop, see a doctor, visit family or even make it to job interviews. They will thus need mobility services - MaaS, in other words. But by being structurally unemployed, they will no longer have the means to afford it.

As I wrote this I thought about the Isaac Asimov story “I, Robot,” set in a future Earth (2035 A.D.) where robots are common assistants and workers for their human owners. In the first act of the 2004 Will Smith movie of the same name, you see a frenetic Chicago street scene where citizens are shadowed by personal robots, and other robots are performing the mundane work, such as refuse collection, street cleaning and deliveries. Each time I watch that movie I think the same thing: “How did that society manage the massive structural unemployment that obviously resulted from this automation? Are the people independently wealthy?”

Today, in many places in the US, save certain urban centers, your mobility is based on owning or having access to a car. If you lose that, a sequence begins: by losing your car, you lose your job. With AI/R, it'd be opposite: you lose your job and then lose your mobility. Either way, it is a vicious cycle, and one hard to break without help.

In the US, our approach to the social safety net has been to help those deemed ‘deserving.’ Without judging that approach, what happens when it is no longer just drivers and ancillary labor who are automated out of their jobs? What do we do when this happens to other classes of employees up the value chain, like knowledge workers?

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development provides subsidies to needy families for housing, ostensibly because we believe that a home is a pillar of a good, cohesive society – and families with a roof over their heads are more likely to be secure, safe, economically-independent and productive citizens. We know that it is challenging if not impossible to find a job, hold it, and support you and your family if you do not have a consistent place to sleep and store your stuff.

With AI/R, our society may have to expand that view. There will be a time when it will have to choose: do nothing for those who experience structural job losses due to AI/R, or embrace a second societal pillar, one called “mobility,” and provide a means to guarantee it via a new Universal Basic MaaS (UBM) subsidy. As for what I wrote earlier about user pays, well, it has an inherent assumption that people who want to consume something - or need to - must have the means to pay for it. Just like a housing subsidy is only meant to last until you are able to not need it, so would a UBM 'account' be there until until you could afford your own mobility.

Getting back to the short story, I thought of Asimov's first of the three laws of robotics: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” I thought the future always comes faster than we think. I thought that perhaps AI will evolve and ‘learn’ from and reflect the values of its human parents. But even though I have faith in technology, I don’t want to trust a machine to do the right thing. I prefer people. My inherent optimism about people makes me believe that once AI/R has removed more of us from our jobs, our policies and actions will reflect our values. We will ensure that, like a roof over our heads, Universal Basic MaaS will be a pillar to a successful economy and society: something we all deserve.

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