The Future of Job Creation at the Dawn of AI

Incentivizing innovation by funding play: “Creative Grants” instead of UBI

“The automation of factories has already decimated jobs in traditional manufacturing, and the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles┬áremaining.”
Stephen Hawking, Dec. 1 2016

There has been a lot of serious talk about implementing UBI (universal basic income), especially now in the wake of the pandemic and rising automation. But already since the early 2010s there has been a divergence between productivity and employment – between wealth and work – in what Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew Mcafee coined “the great decoupling.” We have entered “The Second Machine Age.”

Many brilliant minds, entrepreneurs and tech leaders in Silicon Valley (Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and Andrew Yang, to name a few) have embraced the possibility that UBI is a probable solution to the disappearing jobs and entire industries due to AI and automation.

Brief overview of the Machine Age with Erik Brynjolfsson, 2013

In this talk Brynjolfsson describes the era of increasing automation and shrinking industries. As a musician, this bit in particular caught my attention: “According to the numbers, the music industry is half the size that it was 10 years ago, but I’m listening to more and better music than ever.” A large part of the reduction is surely due to a decrease in CD sales in favor of using platforms like YouTube. But I can’t help wondering: if the amount of money in the music industry is shrinking, how are increasingly larger numbers of musicians earning their living?

Music: A case study of a shrinking industry

There are probably statistics out there on this subject already, but I offer one case study as an example: I graduated from a music degree program in 2006 with about 40 classmates. Today I can think of only one classmate other than myself who is still earning a living via music. For artists and musicians living and working in America, it is hard to pay your bills with your art. As this 2003 study of support structures for U.S. artists describes, there is “a strong sentiment within the cultural community that society, in many instances, does not value art-making as legitimate work worthy of compensation. Rather, society perceives making art as frivolous or recreational.” (p. 9)

Now, on top of this sentiment, people are used to expecting being able to listen to anything they want to hear on YouTube for free. (The known downsides of collecting data about user interaction to feed AI-based ad models to increase time on site, plus other effects on mental health that are more recently coming to light, doesn’t exactly constitute “free use,” but the use of big-name tech sites is generally free in that we don’t pay money directly to them. More on this at The Social Dilemma)

“The internet and the platforms that it makes possible allow very small groups of individuals to make enormous profits while employing very few people. This is inevitable, it is progress, but it is also socially destructive.”

Stephen Hawking, 2016

Stephen Hawking might not have meant it, but this inevitable march toward progress is socially destructive in more ways than one. The increasing inequality through job losses and stagnant wages is one side of it; the price to our society in terms of polarization due to an exacerbated outrage culture, entrenched tribalism and a lack of common truth is the other. (See my other article “Mining Outrage: The Case for building a skill“)

Incentivize creativity and innovation, not outrage

I posit that the solution to both is one and the same: creative energy. The overwhelmingly positive benefits of learning a musical instrument, drawing or slowly building any skill over time are well researched well known. Humans are innately innovative and creative creatures. I propose we as a society offer “Creative Grants” to offset the changing job market, as opposed to a blanket UBI for everyone, whether they are financially in need or not.

“With not only jobs but entire industries disappearing, we must help people to retrain for a new world and support them financially while they do so.”

Stephen Hawking, 2016

What might that look like? Well, basically a monthly stipend in the form of a freelance “work contract” in which the chosen “creative project” is completely open. The only stipulation is to answer one question: “What would you like to create with this grant?” The answer – whether “responsible future citizens” (aka kids) or “a song I write with the guitar I will buy and learn to play” – can be far-reaching and as creative as humankind itself is. There is basically no wrong answer, but simply positing the question invokes a kind of “creation mindset,” which is at the root of all innovation and entrepreneurship.

How is that not UBI?

One could say, doling out “Creative Grants” pretty indiscriminately to all who apply and can answer one question sounds pretty much like UBI, and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong, although I think there are a few crucial differences. Firstly, it’s not automatically given out to every citizen, but applied for and won based on a project idea, instilling a feeling of pride: “Investing in myself is worth funding.” The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind) describes the different moral “taste buds,” and in this case fairness plays a somewhat big role. Humans generally don’t mind if some people receive a larger slice of the pie, so long as it’s commensurate with what value they provide to their community. In this vein, I know many people who would be too proud to “receive handouts, just like that.” However, the tune changes when a person can stipulate the terms of an agreement and decide what he or she would invest this kind of “work contract” in.

Secondly it encourages the individual to think creatively like an innovator or a small business. “What project could I work on in my life if I had that grant?” UBI often assumes this line of thinking is the one people would take automatically, but it certainly can’t harm to prompt the generation of ideas as the one condition for receiving a monthly stipend.

Creating a market for which trained professionals already exist: Subsidizing the arts

Let’s posit that human ingenuity is one area in which AI is not inherently better than humans. Now I would like to recall my 38 colleagues who left the music business. Wouldn’t it be great if, instead of driving them out of a field in which they spent 4-6 years (or longer sometimes) studying and into the general job market in which routine, unspecialized jobs are already disappearing en masse, we could create jobs in art and music instead?

As Stephen Hawking alluded to at the top, care and creativity are two areas in which AI won’t (at least not yet) compete much with humans. Why not create thousands of jobs for these trained professionals in the arts with these Creative Grants? Hire a pianist to rehearse with; book a hall for a concert; design a program for your ensemble and pay them (and yourself) to perform. There are thousands of trained musicians (and probably artists as well) across the country without enough paying work. It seems only smart to massively subsidize the arts and human creativity so as to not put even more pressure on the other industries that AI and tech are already moving into.

As Erik Brynjolfsson put it in his TedTalk, “People are racing against the machine, and many of them are losing that race.” It’s time to imagine and create a culture that values the arts and reflects it financially. If we don’t discover a profound appreciation for human creativity on a society-wide scale, the future looks like a large population of bored, directionless, unemployed citizens. I’m sure Stephen Hawking would agree that’s a picture of a “socially destructive” environment.

Why not just UBI?

It would be very easy to argue that the reason such a program should be under the umbrella of UBI and not such a grant is that UBI is unconditional, whereas requiring an answer to a question about the proposed use of the funding creates a hurdle that might block people who need it most from getting it.

I would argue that such a step should not be seen as a hurdle to overcome, but an initial nudge to tap into the most powerful resource of all: your own ingenuity. The next big innovations will be born of everyday individuals having a bit more time and extra resources around to start moving things in their communities in small ways to solve problems and create a better world, one person at a time.