This essay was first published in the January 2018 issue of New Hampshire Magazine. Thanks to Rick Broussard for commissioning it!
Whenever an editor asks me to put on my science fiction prediction headgear (a wind-powered propeller beanie decorated in LED lights and wrapped in aluminum foil), I am reminded the Carousel of Progress, one of the first animatronic amusement park rides which made its debut at the New York World’s Fair in 1964. Later it decamped to the Disney theme parks. You can still line up in Orlando to view the revamped, Twenty-First Century version.
The future it depicts is the filled with gosh-wow technology, so let’s take a moment to indulge in a happy hardware vision of New Hampshire in the coming decades. The first thing to know is that your house, your car and all of your stuff is going to get smarter. Much smarter. Your refrigerator will know when you’re out of butter and will message Hannafords to add it to the order that you’ll be picking up on the way home from work. That is, unless you’re staying late, in which case your self-driving Prius will fetch it for you. When you’re done watching the latest ten part Ken Burns series on the Supreme Court, your mediawall will default to masterpieces from the Currier Museum’s Outreach Collection. While you sleep, your wall will automatically record the Red Sox/Mariners’s night game on the West Coast, and the replay will edit out not only the commercials but also all the scuffing in the batter’s box and the staring matches between pitchers and catchers. A complete game in an hour! And you can watch whenever you please the next day because you won’t be making that long commute to the job. Instead you and your co-workers will work mostly from home because your company will live in the cloud, running a networked, interactive work session that runs 24/7/365.
That is, if you have a job, because all this shiny technology will give rise to a new NH economy. If we’re living in a Carousel future where your car and your refrigerator and your desk are that smart, then Amazon or Google or Apple will have made the breakthrough in artificial intelligence that they’re currently burning through billions to achieve. Cheap, multipurpose artificial intelligence will usher in an age of economic disruption that will make the Industrial Revolution seem like a hiccup. You’ve seen the warning signs already in your bank’s ATMs and the self-checkout at Walmart. Robots – yes, robots! – are already doing jobs that used to be done by your neighbors or your kids. Maybe you’ve been reassuring yourself that while bots can run the Hampton toll booth, they can’t do your job. Don’t be so sure. According to a 2016 report from the World Economic Forum “… the nature of change over the next five years is such that as many as 7.1 million jobs could be lost through redundancy, automation or disintermediation, with the greatest losses in white-collar office and administrative roles.” And the President’s Council of Economic Advisors warns that workers who made less than $20 an hour have an 83% chance of losing their jobs to automation, while those making $20-40 an hour have a 31% chance of being laid off. How long before Amazon frees its robots from its warehouses and sends them out to deliver your goods? When will we see mechanized construction crews? AI accountants? Pharmacy vending machines? Many smarter futurists than I believe that the horizon for a job apocalypse is less than twenty years away.
So what are we going to do about it? Alas, many of the scenarios are not pretty. But in my opinion the brightest future involves what some might consider one of the most un-New-Hampshire-like ideas ever. If you’ve never heard of Universal Basic Income, let me be the first to introduce you. Love it or hate it, I predict with 100% confidence that we’ll be talking about it for years to come.
The breathtakingly simple idea is that all NH citizens would receive a regular and unconditional sum of money, either from the Feds or the State. Everybody would get paid the same amount: newborns and centenarians, poor and rich, with no means testing. How much? That depends, but the operative word is basic; the support would be designed to meet everyone’s basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter. If a bot took your job and you couldn’t find another, the UBI would keep you from sleeping under the Queen City Bridge.
How could we afford this? Well, part of the answer is that it would replace not only welfare but the vast welfare bureaucracy, so there are savings to be realized there. But it is primarily an income redistribution program, and if that smacks of socialism, remember we are talking about a response to what would be unprecedented un-and-underemployment, maybe half the population without work and with no relief in sight. Would some people slump into a life of indolence under such a system? Without doubt, assuming they could live in flop and subsist on a diet of Cheerios, peanut butter sandwiches and ramen noodles. But most of us would likely build on the UBI foundation and the newfound free time to pursue our personal passions -- and in the process earn a little extra spending money. In a benign post-employment future, your play could become your work. You could teach poetry, banjo, ballet, fine carpentry, chess, or fencing. You could lead kayak paddles down the Saco, hikes up Monadnock, birding trips to Great Bay. Even in 2018, you don’t need to own a store to sell your honey, your leather motorcycle gear, your app, your graphic novel, or your handcrafted earrings. You wouldn’t need to earn a lot doing what you love to do; you’d just need to earn enough.
Can this actually come to pass? I am fairly certain strong AI is just around the corner, and that it will wreak havoc with our economic and cultural status quo. It’s all too easy to imagine a much darker scenario, but I have kids and grandkids. Besides, I’ve never been a fan of post-apocalyptic science fiction. And before you decide that your neighbors would never countenance a Universal Basic Income giveaway, consider this. According to Forbes Magazine, New Hampshire is the seventh most charitable state in the U.S. and first in New England.
We may be Yankees, but when the need is real, we take care of our own.