For years, pundits have argued that increased automation will eventually eliminate millions of human jobs. How should society deal with the resulting disruption?
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has an idea: tax the robots that replace humans. “If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level,” he said in a video posted by Quartz. In his mind, such a tariff would help society to smooth the harsher aspects of a broad transition to automation; humans could then focus on tasks that demand human creativity and empathy, such as caring for the elderly and children.
“You can’t just give up that income tax because that’s how you’ve been funding that level of human workers,” Gates added.
Other tech luminaries believe that automation will force society to institute some sort of universal income or safety net. “There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently told an audience at the World Government Summit in Dubai. “And if my assessment is correct and they probably will happen, than we have to think about what are we going to do about it? I think some kind of universal basic income is going to be necessary.”
Automation and robotics may also lower the cost of living. “Almost everything will get very cheap,” Musk said. “I think we’ll end up doing universal basic income. It’s going to be necessary. The much harder challenge is, how are people going to have meaning?”
Is Universal Income Possible?
But the cost of providing a guaranteed income, with no strings attached, to every citizen of a country is an expensive proposition. In June 2016, a Bloomberg article estimated that paying out $12,000 a year to 225 million U.S. adults would cost $2.7 trillion. (According to the HHS Poverty Guidelines for 2017, the poverty line for a single-person household is $12,060.)
For argument’s sake, let’s say a government is willing to devote most of its annual revenue to a universal-income program that pays its citizens enough to survive on. As FiveThirtyEight pointed out a few months ago, determining eligibility and suitable income targets would still prove extraordinarily complicated issues, especially for legislatures that have problems deciding on even relatively simple matters.
Whatever the eventual solution, automation and robotics will likely begin affecting more industries in the near future. For example, Otto and other tech startups are researching and building self-driving trucks, which, if implemented broadly, would potentially decimate the market for human truck-drivers (one of the most common jobs in every state). This debate is coming, whether we want it or not—and a “robot tax” might not be the only solution.