Technology & Science

Is it time to tax job-stealing robots?

Bill Gates thinks so, but some experts warn it would hurt the economy

Robots can make the future of work better, if they don't take your job

A municipal politician in San Francisco launched a campaign this week to study how a statewide income tax on job-stealing machines might work. (Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg)

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If robots are going to steal human jobs, it's only fair that they pay taxes too, right?

That's the logic behind the robot income tax, a possible solution to the next wave of job displacement that's expected as a result of automation.

In a report released last year, market research firm Forrester predicts robots will take over five per cent of jobs in the U.S. by 2021, with the transportation and customer service industries being hit particularly hard.

A Canadian study that looks two decades down the road predicts the figure will jump to more than 42 per cent of jobs, including in white collar industries such as law and accounting.

There are two commonly cited solutions to help mitigate the pain: Retraining displaced workers for careers in fields that are less likely to be automated, such as child care, and providing a universal basic income. 

But both solutions cost money, and the money needs to come from somewhere. Some policy-makers argue it should come from the robots replacing human labour.

How it works

Jane Kim, a municipal politician in San Francisco, launched a campaign this week called the Jobs of the Future Fund to study how a statewide income tax on job-stealing machines might work.

Assuming automation is inevitable, Kim proposes that proceeds from the tax bankroll new opportunities (for those of us who aren't made up of chips and data) through job retraining and investments in education.

Since robots can't actually pay taxes on their own (for now), a company that employs robots might pay the government a tax in accordance with how much money each robot has generated, or based on the profits that come from the labour savings of an automated workforce.

The idea of a robot tax was first introduced earlier this year by Bill Gates, who said in an interview with Quartz: "Right now if a human worker does $50,000 worth of work in a factory that income is taxed. If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you'd think we'd tax the robot at a similar level."

Cascadia Corridor 20160920

Bill Gates says slowing down the adoption of automation might not be such a bad idea. It might help us avoid the kind of social crisis that could arise if we're not prepared for widespread job displacement. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

The Microsoft co-founder also points out there are still plenty of things humans are innately better at than robots, particularly roles that require empathy such as caring for the elderly or helping kids with special needs. He suggests a robot tax could be used to pay for training.

Jobs that require those skills are underserved, he says. "We still deal with an immense shortage of people to help out there."

Robots and productivity

But the concept has its detractors. Critics argue that taxing robots would disincentivize companies from adopting them and could impede innovation.

Taxing robots is a particularly a bad idea in an era of low productivity growth, according to Robert Seamans, an associate professor of management at New York University.

"The existing empirical evidence suggests that robots boost productivity growth, so a tax on robots would limit that productivity," he says.

Gates, who is a philanthropist these days, argues that slowing down the adoption of automation might not be such a bad idea. It would give us more time to be thoughtful in how we approach the shifting economy, and to avoid the social crisis that could arise if we're not prepared for widespread job displacement.

Realistically, a robot income tax is still a long ways off, for a few reasons.

For starters, Seamans says, "even the term robot is not entirely clear," especially in this context.

When we talk about "job-stealing robots" does that mean the mechanical arms used in factories? Does the definition include self-driving automobiles? And what about virtual assistants like Siri or Alexa?

He also says we don't yet know enough about how automation is displacing jobs.

"We need to start systematically collecting data on the use of robots in the workforce."

It does seem clear, however, that while automation eliminates human jobs in certain sectors, it creates new opportunities in others.

Don't think so? Just try to find an unemployed AI engineer. 

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