Automation: Time for a robot tax?
Bill Gates has a modest proposal: “The robot that takes your job should pay taxes,” said Kevin Delaney in Qz.com. It’s a surprise to hear such a suggestion from the co-founder of Microsoft, “one of the leading players in artificial intelligence technology.” But the world’s wealthiest man is understandably worried that robots are now displacing human workers faster than replacement jobs are being created. A robot tax, Gates argues, would slow down the pace of automation and generate revenue that could pay for retraining schemes and also fund jobs in areas that are unlikely to be automated— such as education and senior care. “Right now, the human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory, that income is taxed,” Gates said. “If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level.”
“Good for you, Mr. Gates,” said John Naughton in The Guardian (U.K.). About 47 percent of today’s jobs are vulnerable to automation, according to a 2015 Oxford University study. They include many white-collar professions in fields like accountancy and legal services “that hitherto seemed secure.” Perhaps everything will work out OK in the end and profitable new jobs for humans will be created. But robot owners are going to be the winners in this new economy, and it’s only fair they help lift up the losers. “Robots have already displaced humans on a scale that rivals that of President Trump’s bugaboos, free trade and globalization,” said Jon Talton in The Seattle Times. Just look at coal country, which Trump has promised to revive. Mines now use automated haul trucks, automated drilling systems, and automated rock breakers. “Those jobs aren’t coming back.” Nobody in the administration is preparing the American people for the shock of the next great wave of automation. “Gates gets it. We need much more discussion.”
“In some distant future, robots with their own consciousnesses, nest eggs, and accountants might pay income taxes like the rest of us,” said The Economist. But that’s not what Gates is talking about. Today’s bots are simply capital investments, like computers or furnaces, that allow companies to make more things, more efficiently, which in turn makes the overall economy more productive. “Gates strangely fears the very automation that enriched him,” said John Tamny in Forbes.com. His software “destroyed millions of past jobs”—Microsoft Excel alone replaced countless bookkeepers and accounting clerks—but it also boosted firms’ productivity and brought new jobs and businesses. It’s impossible to predict what work will look like in the future; “was anyone ‘demanding’ the internet in the ’80s?” But one certain way to kill the opportunities that robots could create is to follow Gates’ advice and implement “a tax on progress.” ■