One-in-five British jobs will be automated by 2030. So what to do when automation displaces millions of workers? One idea is a 'robot tax'.
We owe the word ‘Robot’ to the Czech language. It slipped into common usage from Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. where he used the word ‘Robota’, meaning 'forced labour', to describe the fictional humanoid characters.
In the play, set around the year 2000, these robots have become essential to the economy. They allow humans to produce goods at a fraction of the cost.
It’s just one of the ways that Čapek’s play renders an accurate vision of the future we now live in. Our economy is increasingly automated. Not even our games are safe from the robots, as AlphaGo so capably demonstrated.
The creeping anxiety of the Uncanny Valley has morphed into a fully-fledged existential panic. “Will a robot take your job?” asked the BBC, the article featuring a widget to calculate your odds of being displaced by automation. Elon Musk, in between LARPing as Tony Stark, intones darkly about the danger of runaway AI.
Here’s the question: what are we going to do when workers are mere “conscious linkages” between “numerous mechanical and intellectual organs”, as Marx phrased it. Bill Gates has a suggestion: the avuncular avatar of wonkish sensibility has publicly supported a ‘robot tax’.
Automation, the logic goes, dramatically reduces tax revenue. Fewer human workers, after all, means fewer tax contributions. And that means bad things for public services like education and the NHS. So, why not tax the robots like workers, asked Gates.
“Right now, the human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory, that income is taxed and you get income tax, social security tax, all those things,” Gates told Quartz. “If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level.”
Now it’s Westminster’s turn. The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee has launched an inquiry into automation and the future of work. Among other questions, the Committee asked: “What other actions should the Government be taking to support those affected by automation, such as a ‘robot tax’?”
It’s a suggestion that Phil Hall, the AAT’s head of public affairs and public policy, was eager to squash in the AAT’s response. “Whilst some jobs will be lost because of automation, it is likely that many more will be created,” Hall said. “A robot tax would undermine investment, limit employee skills and income, and risks relegating British business and the British economy to second or third-tier status.
“It is perhaps understandable that structural change brought about by technology and automation could bring a level of nervousness amongst policymakers, but taking a 19th century approach to the subject would undoubtedly prove ruinous.”
The Frankfurt-based International Federation of Robotics (IFR) has similarly criticised a robot tax in the past. Replying to Bill Gates, the IFR’s president Joe Gemma said: “Profits, not the means of making them, should be taxed.” A robot tax, the IFR warned, would make investments in technology more expensive for companies.
Hall and the IFR are probably right that automation won’t just destroy jobs. Until now, technological revolutions have yielded more jobs, not less. But perhaps this industrial revolution is different?
Automation isn’t a new phenomenon. But this time it seems more total. Between 15 and 30% of UK jobs are at high risk of automation by 2030. That process isn’t likely to stop. This isn’t just factories closing, it’s whole sectors becoming automated.
And while there might be job creations, we get into the tricky terrain of whether the jobs created by automation will largely be decent, well paying ones. As Moravec’s Paradox noted, robots find the difficult things easy and the easy things difficult.
Or, as Larry Elliott quipped in The Guardian: “If you wanted to beat Magnus Carlsen, the world chess champion, you would choose a computer. If you wanted to clean the chess pieces after the game, you would choose a human being.”
AI is adept at white collar skills like logic and algebra, but it struggles to replicate jobs requiring skills like mobility and perception. These jobs tend to be lower income. So rampant automation might create some high-paying, high skill jobs -- but it’ll likely create (and require) a bunch of menial, low-paying ones.
“What is almost certainly true is that robotics, automation and artificial intelligence will create net benefit to society, and that some institutions and individuals will benefit and others will not,” said Mat Hunter, the director of Central Research Laboratory, a co-working space and accelerator programme working with several robotics startups.
“But we simply don't know how it will play out, where the benefits and disbenefits will fall, and so any discussion of taxation is premature.”
The key question now, according to Hunter, is how governments and other public actors will work to minimise the negative effects, particularly for those whose skills and jobs are most put at threat, without suffocating the overall positive impact of these innovations.
“Recent episodes of workers rights with Uber, neighbourhood protection with AirBnB and user data privacy with Facebook show that robotics is not the only threat and keeping public policy aligned developments is hard. I must admit to finding the idea of taxation, for a technology that is about productivity, an unlikely prospect.”
A robot tax is an unlikely prospect, maybe. But the fact that it’s not an unremarkable presence in our public discourse points to the bigger issue. Automation is warping the workplace, the economy, and, perhaps most importantly, humanity itself.