A big idea, a bot idea

All of our economic theory, all of our business practice, all of our public policy, they were all developed during an era of scarcity. Scarcity means that when you want more of something, there’s an additional cost to be paid. And that was always true for physical products but it’s no longer true for digital information. That extra view of the funny cat video on YouTube, it basically cost Google nothing. And it is that zero marginal cost of digital information that is turning everything upside down. It used to be, for instance, that we would select first then edit and then publish. Now we can publish many, many things, select a few and edit those. It used to be that people had to go to investors, raise money, then make a product and hope people would buy it. Now you can present your vision for your product to thousands of people, have them contribute, use that money to make a product that you know people want. It used to be that people were very guarded about how something worked. Now we have open source software, hardware, and even biotech. These are all inversions. They’re things that are being turned upside down. They’re being turned upside down because of the zero [ph] marginal cost of digital information and we’re just at the beginning of these. Traditional big publishers still dominate music, movies, crowd funding is tiny, open first biotech is in its infancy. But if you take these trends and you kind of extrapolate them out a little bit, what you get is a kind of digital abundance, a world in which we can learn anything we want to online for free. A world in which all the world’s medical knowhow is available to anybody anywhere in the world for free. Where you can listen to music, enjoy art, read books online for free. And we can even see how eventually that digital abundance could help us reduce the amount of physical scarcity. How? For instance by 3-D printing only products that people actually want. Also by taking existing things like cars, buildings, lab equipment and sharing it much more efficiently than we’ve ever been able to do.

So this is the world that I am very, very excited about but we’re not going to get to this world simply through more technology. We’re not going to get to this world simply through some businesses doing innovative things online. We’re also going to need to invert our public policies. And I’m going to want to speak about two examples of such public policy inversions today.

The first is a basic income guarantee or B.I.G. and the second is the right to be represented by a bot. I’ll explain what those two are and as I talk about them you may think, wow, these are crazy far out ideas. And the goal here isn’t to say, “Hey Congress, we need these as national laws in the U.S. tomorrow.” The goal is simply to say these are interesting ideas that we should be discussing. And more importantly, we should be experimenting with them to see whether they have merit. Let me start with the basic income guarantee. It’s quite a simple idea, it’s the idea that the government should pay everybody above a certain age, say sixteen, some amount of money every month or week. It’s called basic because it’s supposed your cover your basic needs: food, clothing, shelter. And it’s called guaranteed because it’s supposed to be paid to you no matter what; no matter your gender, no matter your marital status, no matter your wealth. And most importantly no matter what you do. So, whether or not you work. And that’s the inversion in this idea. The inversion is that it used to be that you had to work first in order to get paid. Under basic income guarantee, you get paid first and then you choose what to work on. It doesn’t do away with the labor market at all. You can still work in a job where you get paid more. It simply puts a floor under everybody’s income. Now you might say, why would we want that? Well because it would let us embrace automation instead of be afraid of it. I’ve been around computers for thirty plus years. And for many decades, we’ve had these promises of artificial intelligence and they have been false promises. But we now actually have major breakthroughs and we have machines that can do many of the things that humans currently do for work and as a source of income. Let me give you two examples. There are about four million people in the U.S. who make a living driving a truck, a taxi, or a bus. But we also know we have self-driving cars now. So it’s not a question of if anymore, it’s just a question of when, some of these jobs will be replaced by machines. On the other hand, we have about a million people working in the legal professions. But we now have machines that can very efficiently read through reams and reams of legal documents and even write some of them. Again it’s not a question of if anymore, it’s just a question of when. Now you might say, why do we want to embrace automation? And the answer is because it gives us time and time is great in the world of digital abundance. It’s the time you have to watch TED videos. It’s the time you have to make TED videos. So in a world of digital abundance, we want people to have time. We want people to feel they have the time and the resources to learn new things. We want people to have the time and resources to contribute to those things. And make them free. And basic income guarantee, B.I.G., helps with that in a second way. It helps with that because it creates a much broader base of people who can participate in crowd funding. So instead of saying we need these paywalls around content that keep people out, we can say no, let’s put out free content and then let’s fund it on Kickstarter, Indigogo, Patrion, or experiment.com for science or Beaconreader for journalists. There are many other benefits about basic income that I won’t have a chance to really go into detail. For instance, they deal much better with situations of abuse; whether you have an abusive employer or an abusive partner. Basic income gives you a walk away option from many different situations.