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Why Silicon Valley's Leading Startup Incubator Wants To Research Basic Income

Y Combinator is going to give free money to people and see what happens—as part of planning for a future where robots do most of the jobs.

Illustrations: Albert Kremenko via Shutterstock

Silicon Valley loves the idea of basic income. Luminaries such as Marc Andreessen and Peter Diamandis have spoken favorably of giving away free money, so that nobody is poor. And now a leading startup incubator is prepared to put money where its technobabble comes from. Y Combinator, which helped bring Dropbox, Reddit, and Airbnb into being, is funding an experiment to see whether a basic income could work in this country.

Y Combinator president Sam Altman says he's attracted to the concept because it's "the right thing to do" and because artificial intelligence and robots could eliminate millions of the jobs in the next decade or two. "I'm interested in how we can start preparing for that now," he tells Co.Exist.

Altman is currently looking for a researcher to oversee a five-year research program. Up to 300 people will get free money, but he hasn't decided how much exactly (it would be interesting to compare the effect of different amounts, he says). Nor does he know if the cash will come with conditions—as in other experiments—though he prefers a purer, no-strings version.

"We want to see what impact it has on [people's] lives—what it does for their happiness and fulfillment, earnings potential, personal balance sheets—and whether it helps people to create businesses or wealth, or great art," he says.

Cynics say it's obvious what happens when you give money away: People pocket it, sit on the couch, and contribute nothing useful. Altman says that's possible, but also that some will be encouraged to take more risks. "One of the reasons I started thinking about this is that there are a lot of really talented people who never start companies because they got unlucky in the birth lottery," he says.

Besides, financial education can help people to spend and save their money responsibly. "American politicians say we have to be an authoritarian state with these transfer programs because most people are horrible with money. I think you can trust people, but you owe them some financial education, too," he says.

Y Combinator's announcement is just the latest flash of interest in basic income. Finland is planning a very big experiment. So are four Dutch cities. And Switzerland will have the first vote on a nationwide ballot this summer. Hopefully we'll soon have a better idea of whether basic income works as its adherents hope.