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Oscar Williams

News editor

A third of UK business leaders support a universal basic income as automation looms

A third of Britain’s business leaders support the introduction of a universal basic income (UBI), according to one of the first surveys of industry opinions of the radical policy.

Researchers at the Royal Society of Arts, a leading advocate of UBI, said they were surprised to find that 31 per cent of 1,111 surveyed executives support the tax system. 

Under UBI, which is backed by Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Richard Branson, citizens receive a cash allowance from government regardless of whether they are in work.

Supporters suggest the system could provide a financial buffer to workers who lose their jobs to robots. Musk said earlier this year that the payments would become essential.

“There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better,” he said. “I want to be clear. These are not things I wish will happen; these are things I think probably will happen.”

Critics of UBI, which is being piloted in Finland and the Netherlands, warn however that some business leaders would exploit the tax system to undermine the welfare state and pay workers a poverty wage.

The level of support for UBI among the business community mirrors support among the wider UK population. Around 30 per cent of Brits backed handouts funded by higher taxes, according to recent polling by the University of Bath.

The RSA survey, which was carried out by YouGov and funded by Google, found that four million jobs nationwide could be automated, according to executives’ estimations of the impact on their own workforces. The finance, transport and media industries are most likely to be transformed by automation, the survey suggested.

But the researchers also found that just 14 per cent of companies had already invested in AI or robotics, or are planning to in the near future.

“Many think that the technology is too costly or not yet proven,” the report’s authors wrote. “For others, concepts such as machine learning, deep learning and cloud robotics appear to be completely new.”

The researchers’ first conclusion is that AI and robotics are more likely to alter jobs than eliminate them. “Despite impressive advances in machine capability, many tasks remain outside of their scope, particularly those demanding manual dexterity and deeper forms of creativity and communication,” they write.

The ultimate conclusion of the report is that AI and robotics could put the UK on the path to a better world of work, but only if automation is implemented “on our own terms”.

The researchers urge tech companies to take a lead on drafting ethical frameworks, and the government to invest in personal training accounts for lifelong learning.

In addition to the 31 per cent of business leaders that back UBI, 34 per cent back employee ownership models such as the Co-Op and 44 per cent support putting a greater priority on vocational education.

“Much will come down to the choices we make as a society,” they said. “However, these choices will be largely irrelevant unless the UK accelerates its take-up of AI and robotics.”