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Alan Watts was overzealous in his basic income prediction — but he wasn't wrong
A guaranteed basic income is an old solution to a new problem of labor automation.
- Economist Robert Theobald coined the team 'basic living guarantee' in the 1960s.
- He believed that we were going to suffer problems because of an overabundance of resources.
- Philosopher Alan Watts spoke about the possibility of an economic utopia through a universal basic income.
The perceived threat of labor-ending automation, a stratified elite class, and increasingly complex occupations have left some worried about the fate of their livelihoods and jobs. It's feared that a seemingly useless class may be the end sum of this unfettered march of technological and economic progress.
The answer to this problem, from some corners of academia and governments, has been an enthusiastic call for a basic income – also referred to as Universal Basic Income (UBI) or Guaranteed Basic Income (GBI). This solution to a potential economic catastrophe has actually been floating around for quite some time. In the 1960s, a few philosophers and economists foresaw in the tea leaves this far-off solution for a still growing problem.
Early proponents of a guaranteed income
Economist and futurist Robert Theobald first rang the alarm bells on this economic threat, which at the time didn't have a name to it. Theobald believed that the threat to the American and subsequently world economy wasn't one of scarcity but abundance. His views were in direct contrast to the traditional strain of economics worrying more about scarcity. Theobald looked at the technology of the time and realized that the promise of future development would lead to even greater automated abundance in the future.
In his essay, Free Men and Free Markets, Theobald argued that technological progress would free surplus labor and capital in such a way that it would eventually prove detrimental to the society if this excess human capital wasn't fully utilized. He predicted that the mass of wealth would be transferred largely to the rich, which would fuel dissent and resentment among the lower classes. To avoid the looming disaster, he called for a "basic living guarantee". Theobald states:
"Unemployment rates must…be expected to rise. This unemployment will be concentrated among the unskilled, the older worker and the youngster entering the labor force. Minority groups will also be hard hit. No conceivable rate of economic growth will avoid this result."
Philosopher Alan Watts, who at the time called Theobald "an avant-garde economist," took the idea one step further and tried to imagine what sort of psychological and sociological issues a basic income would rile up. Not only did he imagine what the after effects of this radical change would bring, but what kind of psychic change would be needed to also bring about a new way we think about money.
Automation and basic income
Alan Watts believed that we still place an unjustified fixation on the notion of a job or employment, which he said predates back to our pre-technological days.
"Isn't it obvious that the whole purpose of machines is to get rid of work? When you get rid of the work required for producing basic necessities, you have leisure – time for fun or new and creative explorations and adventures."
The problem is we don't see that as the case. If you follow the outcome of automation to its logical end, you'll realize that the whole purpose is to eventually eliminate any human interference in rote menial tasks. But if the casualties of this instead creates a new invalid serfdom class, our entire capitalistic structure will become severely strained.
"... we increasingly abolish human slavery; but in penalizing the displaced slaves, in depriving them of purchasing power, the manufacturers in turn deprive themselves of outlets and markets for their products," writes Watts in Does It Matter?: Essays on Man's Relation to Materiality.
Those that lose their jobs will live in a more diminished and impoverished state. All the while, there is a surplus of cheap consumer goods being created by the automated factories. On the subject of who should pay for the basic income, Watts said that the machine should – something echoed by Bill Gates in recent years, who suggested a robot tax.
Theoretical outcomes for a universal basic income
Watts was a bit premature on his basic income prediction, but the picture he paints is still one that proponents of UBI look to as the future. Watts said:
"I predict by AD 2000, or sooner, no one will pay taxes, no one will carry cash, utilities will be free, and everyone will carry a general credit card."
"This card will be valid up to each individual's share in a guaranteed basic income or national dividend, issued free, beyond which he may still earn anything more that he desires by an art or craft, profession or trade that has not been displaced by automation."
Inflation arguments abound when talking about basic income. Watts understood at the time that the way people thought about money would prove most of these arguments true.
"The difficulty is that, with our present superstitions about money, the issue of a guaranteed basic income of, say $10,000 per annum per person would result in wild inflation. Prices would go sky-high to "catch" the vast amounts of new money in circulation…"
Watts found inflation arguments to be null if people would simply realize the symbolic nature of currency instead of confusing it with true wealth.
"The hapless dollar-hypnotized sellers do not realize that whenever they raise prices, the money so gained has less and less purchasing power, which is the reason that as material wealth grows and grows, the value of the monetary unit goes down and down."
While this idea has gained both supporters and detractors in the years since, the main point still stands: Automated abundance is at risk of disrupting the status quo of the past few hundred years.
Later on in his life, Theobald looked back on the foresight he had and its unnerving validity.
"What's startling to me is that when I started talking about ideas like these 30 years ago, they were so new and strange that people looked at me as if I had two heads. In retrospect, I think I was looked on as something of a cultural clown – a "crazy" who was fun to listen to. The reaction I get now worries me a lot more, because what most people say is, "Bob, today you're right, but we're not going to do anything about it."'
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Some mysteries take generations to unfold.
- In 1959, a group of nine Russian hikers was killed in an overnight incident in the Ural Mountains.
- Conspiracies about their deaths have flourished ever since, including alien invasion, an irate Yeti, and angry tribesmen.
- Researchers have finally confirmed that their deaths were due to a slab avalanche caused by intense winds.
In February 1959, a group of nine hikers crossed through Russia's Ural Mountains as part of a skiing expedition. The experienced trekkers, all employed at the Ural Polytechnical Institute, were led by Igor Dyatlov. On the evening of February 1, all nine appear to have fled their tents into the Arctic temperatures, for which they were unprepared. None survived.
Six of the members died of hypothermia; three suffered from physical trauma. Some members were missing body parts—a tongue here, a few eyes there, a pair of eyebrows for good measure. According to reports, no hiker appears to have struggled or panicked. They were likely too quickly overtaken by the hostile environment in Western Russia.
All the members were young, mostly in their early twenties; one member, Semyon Zolotaryov, was 38. Good health didn't matter. Given the uncertain circumstances—what made them flee into the bitter cold?—the incident known as Dyatlov Pass has long been the type of Area 51-conspiracy theory that some people love to speculate about. A vicious animal attack? Infrasound-induced panic? Was the Soviet military involved? Maybe it was the katabatic winds that did them in. Local tribesmen might not have liked the intrusion.
Or perhaps it was aliens. Or a Yeti. Have we talked about Yeti aliens yet?
These theories and more have been floated for decades.
a: Last picture of the Dyatlov group taken before sunset, while making a cut in the slope to install the tent. b: Broken tent covered with snow as it was found during the search 26 days after the event.
Photographs courtesy of the Dyatlov Memorial Foundation.
Finally, a new study, published in the Nature journal Communications Earth & Environment, has put the case to rest: it was a slab avalanche.
This theory isn't exactly new either. Researchers have long been skeptical about the avalanche notion, however, due to the grade of the hill. Slab avalanches don't need a steep slope to get started. Crown or flank fractures can quickly release as little as a few centimeters of earth (or snow) sliding down a hill (or mountain).
As researchers Johan Gaume (Switzerland's WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF) and Alexander Puzrin (Switzerland's Institute for Geotechnical Engineering) write, it was "a combination of irregular topography, a cut made in the slope to install the tent and the subsequent deposition of snow induced by strong katabatic winds contributed after a suitable time to the slab release, which caused severe non-fatal injuries, in agreement with the autopsy results."
Conspiracy theories abound when evidence is lacking. Twenty-six days after the incident, a team showed up to investigate. They didn't find any obvious sounds of an avalanche; the slope angle was below 30 degrees, ruling out (to them) the possibility of a landslide. Plus, the head injuries suffered were not typical of avalanche victims. Inject doubt and crazy theories will flourish.
Configuration of the Dyatlov tent installed on a flat surface after making a cut in the slope below a small shoulder. Snow deposition above the tent is due to wind transport of snow (with deposition flux Q).
Photo courtesy of Communications Earth & Environment.
Add to this Russian leadership's longstanding battle with (or against) the truth. In 2015 the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation decided to reopen this case. Four years later the agency concluded it was indeed a snow avalanche—an assertion immediately challenged within the Russian Federation. The oppositional agency eventually agreed as well. The problem was neither really provided conclusive scientific evidence.
Gaume and Puzrin went to work. They provided four critical factors that confirmed the avalanche:
- The location of the tent under a shoulder in a locally steeper slope to protect them from the wind
- A buried weak snow layer parallel to the locally steeper terrain, which resulted in an upward-thinning snow slab
- The cut in the snow slab made by the group to install the tent
- Strong katabatic winds that led to progressive snow accumulation due to the local topography (shoulder above the tent) causing a delayed failure
Case closed? It appears so, though don't expect conspiracy theories to abate. Good research takes time—sometimes generations. We're constantly learning about our environment and then applying those lessons to the past. While we can't expect every skeptic to accept the findings, from the looks of this study, a 62-year-old case is now closed.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
Are "humanized" pigs the future of medical research?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires all new medicines to be tested in animals before use in people. Pigs make better medical research subjects than mice, because they are closer to humans in size, physiology and genetic makeup.
In recent years, our team at Iowa State University has found a way to make pigs an even closer stand-in for humans. We have successfully transferred components of the human immune system into pigs that lack a functional immune system. This breakthrough has the potential to accelerate medical research in many areas, including virus and vaccine research, as well as cancer and stem cell therapeutics.
Existing biomedical models
Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, or SCID, is a genetic condition that causes impaired development of the immune system. People can develop SCID, as dramatized in the 1976 movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble." Other animals can develop SCID, too, including mice.
Researchers in the 1980s recognized that SCID mice could be implanted with human immune cells for further study. Such mice are called “humanized" mice and have been optimized over the past 30 years to study many questions relevant to human health.
Mice are the most commonly used animal in biomedical research, but results from mice often do not translate well to human responses, thanks to differences in metabolism, size and divergent cell functions compared with people.
Nonhuman primates are also used for medical research and are certainly closer stand-ins for humans. But using them for this purpose raises numerous ethical considerations. With these concerns in mind, the National Institutes of Health retired most of its chimpanzees from biomedical research in 2013.
Alternative animal models are in demand.
Swine are a viable option for medical research because of their similarities to humans. And with their widespread commercial use, pigs are met with fewer ethical dilemmas than primates. Upwards of 100 million hogs are slaughtered each year for food in the U.S.
In 2012, groups at Iowa State University and Kansas State University, including Jack Dekkers, an expert in animal breeding and genetics, and Raymond Rowland, a specialist in animal diseases, serendipitously discovered a naturally occurring genetic mutation in pigs that caused SCID. We wondered if we could develop these pigs to create a new biomedical model.
Our group has worked for nearly a decade developing and optimizing SCID pigs for applications in biomedical research. In 2018, we achieved a twofold milestone when working with animal physiologist Jason Ross and his lab. Together we developed a more immunocompromised pig than the original SCID pig – and successfully humanized it, by transferring cultured human immune stem cells into the livers of developing piglets.
During early fetal development, immune cells develop within the liver, providing an opportunity to introduce human cells. We inject human immune stem cells into fetal pig livers using ultrasound imaging as a guide. As the pig fetus develops, the injected human immune stem cells begin to differentiate – or change into other kinds of cells – and spread through the pig's body. Once SCID piglets are born, we can detect human immune cells in their blood, liver, spleen and thymus gland. This humanization is what makes them so valuable for testing new medical treatments.
We have found that human ovarian tumors survive and grow in SCID pigs, giving us an opportunity to study ovarian cancer in a new way. Similarly, because human skin survives on SCID pigs, scientists may be able to develop new treatments for skin burns. Other research possibilities are numerous.
The ultraclean SCID pig biocontainment facility in Ames, Iowa. Adeline Boettcher, CC BY-SA
Pigs in a bubble
Since our pigs lack essential components of their immune system, they are extremely susceptible to infection and require special housing to help reduce exposure to pathogens.
SCID pigs are raised in bubble biocontainment facilities. Positive pressure rooms, which maintain a higher air pressure than the surrounding environment to keep pathogens out, are coupled with highly filtered air and water. All personnel are required to wear full personal protective equipment. We typically have anywhere from two to 15 SCID pigs and breeding animals at a given time. (Our breeding animals do not have SCID, but they are genetic carriers of the mutation, so their offspring may have SCID.)
As with any animal research, ethical considerations are always front and center. All our protocols are approved by Iowa State University's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and are in accordance with The National Institutes of Health's Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.
Every day, twice a day, our pigs are checked by expert caretakers who monitor their health status and provide engagement. We have veterinarians on call. If any pigs fall ill, and drug or antibiotic intervention does not improve their condition, the animals are humanely euthanized.
Our goal is to continue optimizing our humanized SCID pigs so they can be more readily available for stem cell therapy testing, as well as research in other areas, including cancer. We hope the development of the SCID pig model will pave the way for advancements in therapeutic testing, with the long-term goal of improving human patient outcomes.
Adeline Boettcher earned her research-based Ph.D. working on the SCID project in 2019.
Satellite imagery can help better predict volcanic eruptions by monitoring changes in surface temperature near volcanoes.
- A recent study used data collected by NASA satellites to conduct a statistical analysis of surface temperatures near volcanoes that erupted from 2002 to 2019.
- The results showed that surface temperatures near volcanoes gradually increased in the months and years prior to eruptions.
- The method was able to detect potential eruptions that were not anticipated by other volcano monitoring methods, such as eruptions in Japan in 2014 and Chile in 2015.
How can modern technology help warn us of impending volcanic eruptions?
One promising answer may lie in satellite imagery. In a recent study published in Nature Geoscience, researchers used infrared data collected by NASA satellites to study the conditions near volcanoes in the months and years before they erupted.
The results revealed a pattern: Prior to eruptions, an unusually large amount of heat had been escaping through soil near volcanoes. This diffusion of subterranean heat — which is a byproduct of "large-scale thermal unrest" — could potentially represent a warning sign of future eruptions.
Conceptual model of large-scale thermal unrestCredit: Girona et al.
For the study, the researchers conducted a statistical analysis of changes in surface temperature near volcanoes, using data collected over 16.5 years by NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites. The results showed that eruptions tended to occur around the time when surface temperatures near the volcanoes peaked.
Eruptions were preceded by "subtle but significant long-term (years), large-scale (tens of square kilometres) increases in their radiant heat flux (up to ~1 °C in median radiant temperature)," the researchers wrote. After eruptions, surface temperatures reliably decreased, though the cool-down period took longer for bigger eruptions.
"Volcanoes can experience thermal unrest for several years before eruption," the researchers wrote. "This thermal unrest is dominated by a large-scale phenomenon operating over extensive areas of volcanic edifices, can be an early indicator of volcanic reactivation, can increase prior to different types of eruption and can be tracked through a statistical analysis of little-processed (that is, radiance or radiant temperature) satellite-based remote sensing data with high temporal resolution."
Temporal variations of target volcanoesCredit: Girona et al.
Although using satellites to monitor thermal unrest wouldn't enable scientists to make hyper-specific eruption predictions (like predicting the exact day), it could significantly improve prediction efforts. Seismologists and volcanologists currently use a range of techniques to forecast eruptions, including monitoring for gas emissions, ground deformation, and changes to nearby water channels, to name a few.
Still, none of these techniques have proven completely reliable, both because of the science and the practical barriers (e.g. funding) standing in the way of large-scale monitoring. In 2014, for example, Japan's Mount Ontake suddenly erupted, killing 63 people. It was the nation's deadliest eruption in nearly a century.
In the study, the researchers found that surface temperatures near Mount Ontake had been increasing in the two years prior to the eruption. To date, no other monitoring method has detected "well-defined" warning signs for the 2014 disaster, the researchers noted.
The researchers hope satellite-based infrared monitoring techniques, combined with existing methods, can improve prediction efforts for volcanic eruptions. Volcanic eruptions have killed about 2,000 people since 2000.
"Our findings can open new horizons to better constrain magma–hydrothermal interaction processes, especially when integrated with other datasets, allowing us to explore the thermal budget of volcanoes and anticipate eruptions that are very difficult to forecast through other geophysical/geochemical methods."