In January, Silicon Valley accelerator Y Combinator said it was planning to conduct a study about basic income. Now, the outlines of what could be a fascinating social experiment are starting to come into view.

Proponents of so-called universal basic income favor giving everyone enough money to cover their very basic needs, often (but not always) in place of the current patchwork of government services that serve as the U.S. social safety net. The theory is that giving people money would be more efficient and allow them more autonomy than the current system. Many in Silicon Valley see the idea as a valuable tool in a future where robots will do much of the work currently done by humans, leading to very high unemployment.

"I'm fairly confident that at some point in the future, as technology continues to eliminate traditional jobs and massive new wealth gets created, we're going to see some version of this at a national scale," wrote Y Combinator president Sam Altman in January.

To lead the project, Y Combinator has chosen Elizabeth Rhodes, who recently completed her PhD in social work and political science at the University of Michigan. Her most recent work has focused on health and education services in slums in Nairobi, Kenya.

The accelerator also seems to have settled on a location for the experiment: Oakland, California. Oakland, Altman writes in a blog post this week, has a number of advantages for the pilot. It has significant income disparity, making it, in that sense, emblematic of the country as a whole. It's got a diverse population. And it's near Y Combinator, which is headquartered in Mountain View, California. "We think our local resources and relationships will help us design and run this study effectively, and we hope that will enable us to produce the best research possible," Altman writes.

Last, and perhaps most important, Y Combinator knows what it wants to achieve with the pilot. It seeks to learn how to pay people, how to collect data, and how to randomly choose a sample. It's not clear how much each participant will receive.

Y Combinator is certainly not the first to study basic income, and since it's just starting a pilot, we don't yet know how its work will lead to new or different findings than those uncovered by experiments in other places and times, such as those in Canada, the U.S., and India. Altman says the long-term study will try to assess "how people's happiness, well-being, and financial health are affected by basic income, as well as how people might spend their time."

Some of those questions seem to have already been answered, but not all. In studies in the U.S. and in Manitoba, Canada, most people who received a universal basic income did not work less. Those who did work less were mostly parents with very young children and teenagers who otherwise would have spent more time in school or studying. In other words, people for whom there is at least some social argument that working less is a good thing.

What's potentially very intriguing about the Y Combinator experiment is the proposed time frame of five years. Will that be long enough for the money to really change the recipient's approach to work and leisure, or will they view it more as a temporary windfall? Tune back in, oh, in about six years.

Published on: Jun 2, 2016