Taxation could be used to ease the effects of the job displacement caused by automation, Gates argues
Bill Gates has supported the taxation of robots to “slow” the speed of innovation and allow society time to adapt to the job losses they are expected to cause.
Gates, the world’s richest man and the co-founder of Microsoft, whose technologies have helped make some pre-PC employment categories obsolete, said taxes relating to automation could help fund tasks for which humans are uniquely suited, such as education and care for the elderly.
He spoke to online magazine Quartz following last week’s defeat in the European Parliament of a measure supporting a robot tax – something that also figures prominently in the platform of Benoit Hamon, France’s Socialist candidate in this year’s presidential elections.
“There will be taxes that relate to automation,” Gates said. “If you can take the labor that used to do the thing automation replaces, and financially and training-wise and fulfillment-wise have that person go off and do these other things, then you’re net ahead.”
Gates noted that automation is currently expected to cause widespread job displacement, which ought to serve as a warning to governments to “slow down” the adoption of such technologies.
“At a time when people are saying that the arrival of that robot is a net loss because of displacement, you ought to be willing to raise the tax level and even slow down the speed of that adoption somewhat to figure out, ‘OK, what about the communities where this has a particularly big impact? Which transition programs have worked and what type of funding do those require?'”
Innovation causing ‘fear’
He said it was important to be “thoughtful” about job categories expected to become obsolete in the next 20 years, such as manual labour in warehouses, and added “it’s important to have the policies to go with that”.
“It is really bad if people overall have more fear about what innovation is going to do than they have enthusiasm,” he said. “That means they won’t shape it for the positive things it can do. And, you know, taxation is certainly a better way to handle it than just banning some elements of it.”
Some leading figures in science and technology, such as Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, have cited artificial intelligence as an existential threat to humanity and have called for controls on its development.
Gates said government income could be generated directly through direct taxation on robots or by taxing the profits generated by labour-saving technologies.
“I don’t think the robot companies are going to be outraged that there might be a tax. It’s OK,” he said, adding that the issue needs to be considered now. “People should be figuring it out.”
He said governments have a role in the issue because businesses aren’t in a position to mitigate automation’s social effects.
“If you want to do (something about) inequity, a lot of the excess labor is going to need to go help the people who have lower incomes,” he said. “The inequity-solving part, absolutely government’s got a big role to play there.”
In January the European Parliament’s legal commission adopted a report on robotics that included amendments on a robot tax that could be used to fund a universal revenue scheme, but on Thursday the parliament’s plenary session, while adopting the report, voted to strike out those two amendments.
The report’s other provisions relate to the establishment of a special legal statute for robots, something that could, for instance, make it easier to attribute blame in the event of damage caused by autonomous vehicles.
The report argues a clarification in the regulations governing the responsibilities in such cases is necessary in particular for new generations of robots, whose use of machine-learning means there may be “a certain element of the unexpected in their behaviour”.
The report is thought to be the first time any of the world’s parliaments have taken up such issues.
Bruno Bonnell, president of French domestic robot distributor Robopolis, last week told French radio network Europe 1 the proposed robot tax was “ridiculous” and said it would mean higher prices for robot devices.
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