Maybe a “robot tax” is a bad idea.
In a video interview with Quartz in late February, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates suggested a tax on any robots that replace humans in the workplace. That tariff, in turn, could help offset the human costs of a societal transition to automation. “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.
But others disagree with this idea. In a recent op-ed in The Washington Post, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers (who also served as an economic advisor to President Obama) suggested that robotics aren’t the right target for such a tax.
“Does Gates think anyone, let alone Congress, the Trump administration or a commission composed of his fellow technocrats, can distinguish labor-saving activities from labor-enhancing ones?” Summers wrote. “Surely even if experts could draw such distinctions, the ability of the Internal Revenue Service to administer them is in doubt.”
Automation has changed the world for decades, Summers went on to argue; much of it has resulted in gains in productivity and safety. A tax might risk choking off innovation, essentially becoming “protectionism against progress.”
Automation and robotics have been systematically replacing human workers for years. One recent analysis by Ball State University’s Center for Business and Economic Research (PDF) found that 88 percent of job losses in manufacturing “can be attributable to productivity growth, and the long-term changes to manufacturing employment are mostly linked to the productivity of American factories.” That productivity is driven by machines stronger, faster, and more precise than human beings.
But as machine learning and artificial intelligence grow more sophisticated, a growing number of professions are potentially in automation’s sights. Trucker drivers, for example, may find themselves in the midst of an existential crisis over the next few years, should autonomous vehicles begin taking over long-haul shipping. The healthcare industry already has A.I. and robots performing tasks ranging from surgery to diagnostics. Even tech pros aren’t immune: pundits have predicted for years that software will eventually take over software coding from humans.
The next few years, in other words, may see an intensifying debate over the impact of automation on all levels of the professional world. Will a “robot” tax be part of that discussion?