What would the world be like if cryptocurrency millionaires could share some of their wealth with impoverished villages in Nigeria?
Jim Flynn, a Northampton resident and lifelong innovator, wants to find out.
An entrepreneur in residence at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Flynn has been working on an ambitious project to employ data science to create a free and open system of distribution for a universal basic income -- UBI.
How does one do that, exactly? And what is a UBI, again?
A UBI is a concept that social theorists, tech firms and politicians have increasingly discussed as a solution to poverty. The Basic Income Earth Network -- an advocacy group for UBI -- defines it as a "periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement."
With a team of the school's brightest computer science students, Flynn has spent this summer investigating how data science might be employed in the service of distributing such a payment to those who need it.
"There's 700 million people that live on less than $1.90 a day -- and more than half of those are children," Flynn said in a recent interview with The Republican.
The entrepreneur wants to use cryptocurrency and blockchain to create an independent and open source model for redistributing wealth to the world's most impoverished nations.
"In a population of 700 million ... there's going to be a lot of Michaelangelos who will never realize their potential," he said. "The loss in having those people live in severe poverty ... they're never going to solve climate change and they're never going to cure cancer if they're spending their entire lives worrying about where their next meal is going to come from."
The impediments to adequate redistribution in many of these countries are stark, Flynn said. "They're run by dictators, there's wars going on," he said. "How do you deliver a basic income to someone in that situation? How do you get it by the sticky fingers of the dictator or the finance minister, or the corrupt banking system in that country?"
Cryptocurrency presents a loophole to this problem, the entrepreneur said. Because it's a private, global form of currency, it can skirt around bureaucratic dysfunction.
Having spent much of his career working with digital start-ups and media companies, Flynn recently founded The Kuwa Foundation to assist with the pursuit of this goal. Over the past few months, it has worked in collaboration with the UMass Center for Data Science on the project.
Carlos Daniel Mondragon Chapa, a Fulbright scholar and Master of Science candidate at UMass, has spent the last few months working with four other graduate students in an attempt to develop a functional model for Flynn's concept.
"Basically what we wanted to do is have some sort of proof of concept," Chapa said. "Something working that we can put out there and that anyone can access."
In the working model, an ID system -- a digital network that could identify people living in a certain geographical area, like a town or village -- would be set up. Individuals in need of a UBI can register profiles in this network that then become vectors for UBI deposits, kind of like a bank account but for Bitcoin. Payments themselves would likely come from wealthy benefactors and institutions.
It's a complicated idea, and Flynn said he wants to make the system "resistant to corruption or capture by malevolent actors," implementing safeguards that can identify and block fraud and criminality within it.
He also wants to make the model free and accessible to the public. The Kuwa Foundation will publish the project's findings online by the end of August.
This issue of redistribution is a universal one, Flynn said. It's relevant not only to countries like Uganda and Ghana, but to the United States, as well.
A UBI, many believe, may present a solution to the prospect of cataclysmic labor displacement that is projected to occur in advanced western societies as corporations use automation and robots to replace workers.
A report by the MIT Technology Review summarizes projections for worker displacement in the decades to come -- with some assessments predicting the loss of as many as 80 million U.S. jobs over the next 20 years.
"If you have a job where you drive a truck at some point the trucks are going to drive themselves," Flynn said. "In fact, they already are. Similarly, if you go into a decent-sized town and you go into a McDonald's there (in the future), there's going to be one part-time employee just to maintain the robot," he said.
Flynn sees the prospect of a UBI as an opportunity for authentic self-realization instead of a privatized welfare payment. "There are so many people who are employed that don't want to be there, that watch the clock," Flynn said. "You know, let them do something that inspires them."
Whatever the future looks like, Flynn says he wants to try to make the world a better place.
"I've gotten to the point in my life where I've realized I'm going to work hard on whatever I do," Flynn said. "So I might as well work hard on something where -- if I'm successful -- it'll make a big difference."