Wary of robots taking jobs, Hawaii toys with guaranteed pay

HONOLULU — Driverless trucks. Factory robots. Delivery drones. Virtual personal assistants.

As technological innovations increasingly edge into the workplace, many people fear that robots and machines are destined to take jobs that human beings have held for decades–a trend that is already happening in stores and factories around the country. For many affected workers, retraining might be out of reach —unavailable, unaffordable or inadequate.

What then?

Enter the idea of a universal basic income, the notion that everyone should be able to receive a stream of income to live on, regardless of their employment or economic status.

It isn’t an idea that seems likely to gain traction nationally in the current political environment. But in some politically progressive corners of the country, including Hawaii and the San Francisco Bay area, the idea of distributing a guaranteed income has begun to gain support.

Over the past two decades, automation has reduced the need for workers, especially in such blue-collar sectors as manufacturing, warehousing and mining. Many of the jobs that remain demand higher education or advanced technological skills. It helps explain why just 55 percent of Americans with no more than a high school diploma are employed, down from 60 percent just before the Great Recession.

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Hawaii state lawmakers have voted to explore the idea of a universal basic income in light of research suggesting that a majority of waiter, cook and building cleaning jobs — vital to Hawaii’s tourism-dependent economy — will eventually be replaced by machines. The crucial question of who would pay for the program has yet to be determined. But support for the idea has taken root.

“Our economy is changing far more rapidly than anybody’s expected,” said state Rep. Chris Lee, who introduced legislation to consider a guaranteed universal income.

Lee said he felt it’s important “to be sure that everybody will benefit from the technological revolution that we’re seeing to make sure no one’s left behind.”

Here are some questions and answers:

What is a universal basic income?

In a state or nation with universal basic income, every adult would receive a uniform fixed amount that would be deemed enough to meet basic needs. The idea gained some currency in the 1960s and 1970s, with proponents ranging from Martin Luther King Jr. to President Richard Nixon, who proposed a “negative income tax” similar to basic income. It failed to pass Congress.

Recently, some technology leaders have been breathing new life — and money — into the idea. Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and others have promoted the idea as a way to address the potential loss of many transportation, manufacturing, retail and customer service jobs to automation and artificial intelligence.

Even some economists who welcome technological change to make workplaces more efficient note that the pace of innovation in coming years is likely to accelerate. Community colleges and retraining centers could find it difficult to keep up. Supporters of a universal basic income say the money would cushion the economic pain for the affected workers.

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