On universal basic income, job eating robots, and why you should be optimistic about the future of work.

What does the future of work look like? Roy Bahat, Head of Bloomberg’s venture capital firm Bloomberg Beta, says he doesn’t know and that we can’t predict it. We can, however, imagine.

Bahat has spent his life imagining the future of work, but it wasn’t until recently that he made it his mission. “It’s only in the last few years that I realized I wanted to devote myself to making work better,” he notes.

Before that he says he had a “messy” career. Maybe so. But as the co-founder of Ouya, the game console that raised over $8M on Kickstarter, the VP of News Corp, the Senior Policy Director for the NY City Mayor’s Office, and more, that messy career has given him a broad perspective on work.

Now with Bloomberg Beta, Bahat is investing in startups that are making work better. In this interview, he shares his thoughts on universal basic income, job eating robots, and why we should be optimistic about work’s future.

Machine intelligence is your firm’s primary area of interest. Can you talk about how machine intelligence will make organizations “smarter” and what it’ll do to the traditional employer-employee relationship?

The intersection of machine intelligence and organizational life is a complex subject about which, today, we know very little. I generally try to avoid predictions, because I think they’re mostly lullabies — stories we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better. I prefer to focus on the unknowns, so we can work to make them known.

We know that, in the same way that the use of software required organizations to work differently, machine intelligence will again recast organizations.

My partner James Cham calls it an organization-in-the-loop system. What exactly does that system look like? We haven’t a clue, yet.

You describe yourself as Universal Basic Income (UBI) curious. From the perspective of the future of work, what intrigues you about the UBI concept?

First a thought on the future of work, more generally. Our venture fund, Bloomberg Beta, invests in that future — with a focus on machine intelligence. We don’t yet know what work, in the future, will be done by computers and what by people. We know that every time technologists have predicted mass unemployment caused by technology, they’ve been wrong. Will this time be different?

One thing we do know is that change, on a broad historic scale, continues to accelerate. That means we could get faster transitions from one steady state to another, and those transitions can be dangerous. So one of the appeals of a universal basic income is that it would give people insurance against those dangerous transitions — while they learn a new job skill, for example.

I also generally want to see talent in power. If talented people have an income, whether or not they work, then they might have more leverage to get better, more meaningful work from employers. They can also have time to create (whether that’s art, or caring environments for loved ones, or startups, or things we have yet to imagine). Ironically, a universal basic income might give businesses an incentive to invest in more automation (given the higher cost of labor).

I want to explore universal basic income deeply, because there’s a chance it’s a necessary solution to the coming changes in work. That said, it’s a multi-trillion dollar policy, so it’s hard to underestimate how much more work we need to do to fully understand it.

Job polarization continues in the US, eradicating the middle-skill labor sector. In its place is the rising alternative work arrangements, including the gig economy. How does a basic minimum income play into the polarization of the labor market and the rise of the gig economy?

I think these are all different, yet related, issues, and at best a universal basic income is an incomplete solution for them.

The gig economy, today, as we understand it (i.e., fractional, project-based work mediated by online platforms) is tiny (though it’s growing quickly). Wages from work are less and less a share of income (compared to government payments and returns on assets like homes).

Aging of the workforce is a more significant trend than we realize. And, in Social Security, we already have in the U.S. a form of universal income for those who are of age.

The decline of middle-skill jobs is a critical phenomenon, not just because of its effects on the livelihood of so many people, but also because it continues to change the nature of the society in which we live.

Middle-skill jobs gave many people the ability to provide, serve as pillars in their communities, and make meaning every day. So, we need to do more than just solve for income.

We’re forming a commission, together with New America, to study these long-term issues — the Shift Commission on Work, Workers, and Technology. We hope to have more complete perspectives as we engage with the technologists, business people, government policy experts, activists, academics and others who can shape our perspectives.

In this post, you write that one principle of the future of work is “we’re all in it together”. However, we have an ever-increasing divide — labor polarization, rising wealth inequality. The opposite looks true: we’re notall in it together, and more and more people are being left behind. How can technology correct for this, if at all?

We’re all in it together in the sense that no one sector of society can solve this alone. What do we need to solve? Every person deserves a chance at providing for him or herself and for loved ones.

Every person deserves a chance to have days filled with work (however defined) that’s meaningful.

Technology can and is doing many things: it can lower the prices of goods, so more people can afford them, it can create new opportunities for talent that can skip traditional gatekeepers, etc. The most important ways technology can influence this have yet to be invented, is my guess.

You’ve written about the uncertain impact of job-eating robots. While this can’t be accurately predicted, what can workers and employers do now and into the future to prepare for uncertainties like this?

For now, the best answer seems to be to always continue to learn new skills. Whatever job you are doing, ask yourself what you would do if, in 5–10 years, your job no longer existed. Ask yourself what you would do if you worked for a competitor to your company, and then start to learn those skills. For many people in information industry work, that will mean learning software skills. For others it might mean learning a new creative trade.

The future of work seems fast-paced, uncertain, and unfamiliar. What is there to be optimistic about for the average working American?

There are many things to be optimistic about! We’re living longer lives, people have access to more knowledge and ability to communicate with others than they ever did before, goods (with a few important exceptions, like healthcare) are getting less expensive, we might invent entirely new industries in the coming decades, and one of the most popular works of pop culture is, surprisingly, a Broadway musical. Anything can happen.

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