The world is developing at a rapid pace. Things are changing in a way that has never been seen before. The Industrial Revolution took well over a century to revolutionize the way we work. Before it, the Agrarian Revolution took even longer. The advances humanity made in those eras pale in comparison to the advancements we have achieved thus far. And yet, the development of our modern technology has advanced in a mere matter of decades.
Ever since Charles Babbage came up with his Difference Engine, humanity was well on its way to creating computers. By the 1950s we had working prototypes of something that would almost be taken for granted in the future. Now, computers are an integral part of our lives. In fact, with the up and coming internet of things, everything from our cars to our fridges will be computerized. Smart TVs won’t be so special anymore because everything will be smart.
Computers have the great advantage of helping us in menial tasks, thereby freeing up our time to take on more complex tasks. Think of them as taking up all the lower levels on Maslows hierarchy of needs so we can cater to the higher levels. They schedule our days, build our cars, design our houses and, soon enough, will be driving us and replenishing our food supplies in our fridges. Sounds like a great thing, doesn’t it? And yet, it isn’t.
The Rise of The Robot
Computers haven’t only made things easier for individuals; they’ve done the same for major corporations. That’s where the great dilemma lies. With robots taking up more and more tasks, what happens to the humans they replace? They lose their jobs, and with them the ability to provide for their families. They lose all the time they wasted honing their skills to get really good at that job and the additional time they will have to spend learning new skills so they can switch to a different career. This is assuming they can afford the training at all.
Robots are cheaper than the alternative human labour. Even with the large initial outlay of capital, the overall capital cost of having robots work for you are much lower than having to having to pay workers a salary. Combine that with the fact that robots are more productive than humans and don’t need a break or a holiday, and they start to seem really attractive. So, is the automation threat? And, how do we help the situation? Well, it seems a lot of people think taxing the robots would be a good idea.
Should We Tax Robots?
The idea to tax robots was raised in the European Parliament in May of 2016 with emphasis being placed on the argument that they promote societal inequality. Since they leave more people jobless and contribute to the unemployment numbers, while simultaneously increasing productivity for their owners, they reinforce the rich-get-richer trope.
This idea wasn’t very well received, to say the least. With the exception of one person: Bill Gates. On Quartz, Bill Gates publicly endorsed the idea of taxing robots, which has forced a lot of us to think critically about the subject.
With devices like Amazon’s Echo Dot taking over the market, and self-driving cars becoming a trend, many human jobs will soon be replaced. In fact, according to Mackinsey, 45% of current jobs in the United States are currently capable of automation. That’s a huge part of the tax base that would disappear.
But what exactly would we classify as a robot? Is it a computer? Is it more? This complicates the scope of any potential tax laws on the matter. This is the number one argument critics of a robotics law are putting forward. Another issue is the complexity of such a tax law. While it would be much easier to measure the productivity of a robot and assign associated taxes, the robot owners are unlikely to take very kindly to the whole idea. They’re more likely to take advantage of loopholes in the law to avoid paying the taxes altogether.
Consider the massive benefits robotics technology has contributed to industries around the world. If robots were taxed, robot owners might resort to not using robots at all. This would be good for humans, but bad for productivity. It feels a little like a chicken and egg problem. At least we know the rapid adoption of robotics would be slowed by a tax and people would have more time to train for other skills and switch careers.
A robot tax would have to be redirected to giving some sort of income insurance to people by providing a guaranteed basic income whether they were at work or not. That way, people who had been replaced by robots would be able to provide for their families while looking into other careers. Bill Gates himself suggests that such money be used to train more people to go into the care giving fields such as teaching and taking care of the elderly. These jobs are better done by humans and not as popular as they should be.
However you look at it, the topic of taxing robots is a complicated one and everyone is likely to have a strong opinion on it. One thing we can be sure about is that the tax won’t be implemented very soon. Just working out the details is a gargantuan task in itself. The question remains, however: Should robots pay taxes?