Y Combinator is running a basic income experiment with 100 Oakland families

A question humans may someday ask themselves.
A question humans may someday ask themselves.
Image: Reuters / Denis Balibouse
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Universal basic income is a growing obsession in Silicon Valley. Wherever founders and venture capitalists gather or TED talks are given, there is likely to be speculation about an automated future where technology takes over most occupations (except theirs of course), and the jobless forever outnumber the jobs.

Given that the engine of this future economy will be in Silicon Valley, it’s fitting that the region’s top startup accelerator, Y Combinator, would do some research on the subject of what will happen to us humans in the age of automation. On Tuesday, Oakland was selected as the site of Y Combinator’s pilot experiment, in which it will give about 100 families a minimum wage. The city was chosen for its social and economic diversity, alongside concentrated wealth and inequality—a good starting point for the US at large.

“The motivation behind the project is to begin exploring alternatives to the existing social safety net,” writes Elizabeth Rhodes, the first director of the non-profit arm YC Research, in an email. “If technology eliminates jobs or jobs continue to become less secure, an increasing number of people will be unable to make ends meet with earnings from employment. Basic income is one way to ensure that people are able to meet their basic needs. We’re not sure how it would work or if it’s the best solution, which is why we want to conduct this study.”

This initial small pilot program will run for between six months and a year. People will be selected from across the economic spectrum, and include both the employed and the jobless. Each person will receive $1,000 to $2,000 per month, with no strings attached. The study will test payment methods and data collection, as well as whether the money meets people’s core needs, and how it affects people’s “happiness, well-being, financial health, as well as how people spend their time.”

The data will inform a larger five-year study. YC Research says it will make all of the data available to researchers at the end of the study, and share its research and data analysis methods at the outset. The identities of all the participants will remain private.

Momentum behind basic incomes is growing. On June 5, Switzerland will vote on whether to give every citizen roughly $30,000 each year, while Ontario and Finland are toying with related ideas. Critics of the idea say it misjudges how work enhances our lives beyond providing an income, and that it takes an overly generous view of human nature. Researchers also argue that work is a critical source of status and an organizing force in people’s lives.

Universal basic income programs are also rather expensive—more so than systems that involve means testing or subsidizing wages. The left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says writing a $10,000 check to most Americans would cost about $3 trillion, reports The New York Times. In the the US, at least, as people have worked less hours they have spent more free time in leisure activities such as watching TV, relaxing, and sleeping (pdf).

YC Research, in true Silicon Valley fashion, seems sanguine about these objections. YC’s president Sam Altman has has said that he’s “fairly confident that at some point in the future…we’re going to see some version of [basic income] at a national scale” and he argues that ”technological improvements” are likely to lower living costs and generate resources that rescue basic income from its current fiscal fantasy-land.

A baseline of economic security, Altman says, could “give people the freedom to pursue further education or training, find or create a better job, and plan for the future.” And perhaps it could even stave off a revolt against the robots who will have taken their jobs.