SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
All this week, as part of our series A Nation Engaged, we've asked, how can we provide economic opportunity for more Americans? A growing number of people in Silicon Valley now look to an old idea endorsed by both Milton Friedman and Dr. Martin Luther King, a regular paycheck from the federal government, whether you work or not. KQED's Queena Kim reports.
QUEENA KIM, BYLINE: When we talk about the economy, we spend a lot of time talking about jobs and wages. But what if, in the future, employers need far fewer workers? Misha Chellam has been asking this question. He's a tech entrepreneur in San Francisco. And he took me to a restaurant to show me where he thinks the economy is headed.
MISHA CHELLAM: All right. So we're at Eatsa, which is a future-concept restaurant.
KIM: Imagine if Apple opened a fast food joint. And that's sort of what Eatsa looks like.
So where are the cashiers?
CHELLAM: There are no cashiers.
CHELLAM: That is part of the magic here. We're not going to order from anybody. We're going to order from computers.
KIM: Chellam and I walk up to one of the eight or so iPads mounted to the wall.
CHELLAM: If I just swipe my card - I'm in San Francisco. I feel like I need to go with kale. Oh, but I...
KIM: A couple clicks later - and we're done. There are about 15 to 20 customers in the restaurant but only one employee.
CHELLAM: I have this gut sense from having been in the Valley for a while now that there will be a coming wave of automation that's going to get rid of a lot of jobs.
KIM: Chellam and I are at his office in San Francisco. And in Silicon Valley, where there are experiments in automation everywhere, you can see why techies like Chellam are concerned. There's a Lowe's hardware store with a robot that checks inventory. There's a robot butler working at a hotel in Cupertino. And then there's Uber, which has been experimenting with driverless taxis and trucks.
CHELLAM: And that would affect 3.5 million truck drivers, another 5 million people who support the truck-driving industry. I mean, that's just one example of automation.
KIM: Chellam says politicians aren't addressing this automated future. At most, they talk about retraining, which, Chellam says, fails to deal with the scope of the problem.
CHELLAM: Take the truck-driver example. What are you going to retrain 3.5 million people to do in a short enough period of time?
KIM: Chellum believes as technology replaces more workers, the traditional 40-hour-a-week job could become a thing of the past. If that happens, how will families get health insurance or save for retirement?
Some experts say the only answer is a government-guaranteed paycheck that would allow people to buy food and housing. That would not only help the individuals but would help keep the economic wheels spinning and generate tax revenues.
NATALIE FOSTER: Silicon Valley's interest in the universal basic income is one part guilt and one part optimism.
KIM: That's Natalie Foster. She's a fellow at the Institute of the Future. It's a nonprofit research organization in Palo Alto. Foster says techies understand that there's a lot that seems impossible about the basic income. And right now they're in an inquiry and research phase. They're hosting panels that ask...
FOSTER: What would it mean to give people money that they didn't work for? And that's a notion that challenges a lot of people.
KIM: Chris Hughes says, whether you like the idea or not, there won't be an alternative because decent-paying jobs are disappearing for millions of people. He's a co-founder of Facebook and active in the basic-income movement.
CHRIS HUGHES: The reality is that work has changed. You know, 40 percent of jobs are now contingent, meaning they're part-time, independent contractors, Uber drivers.
KIM: Hughes says that shift has already left middle-class Americans economically insecure. And that feeling of insecurity is evident in this tumultuous presidential election.
HUGHES: I think there's a sense that our economy is broken in many ways. But rather than try to restructure our economy so it looks like the 1950s, I think we have to be honest with ourselves.
KIM: That those days aren't coming back - machines and software are replacing workers every day. And Hughes says that means basic income isn't an idea for the distant future but one we need to consider today. For NPR News, I'm Queena Kim.
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