Last week, the European Parliament considered a resolution suggesting that what they deemed “smart robots” should have similar rights and obligations to the human labour force, including paying tax.
The Parliament voted the resolution down, but clearly the idea of taxing robots is being considered as are dealing with their consequences to the human labour force. It has been suggested that a Robot Tax” is a potential way to finance the introduction of Universal Income, currently being piloted in parts of Finland. The introduction of a Universal Income along with taxation on artificial intelligence (AI) has also become a policy platform for French Socialist Presidential candidate Benoit Hamon.
The report behind the European Parliament resolution was about more than taxing robots and also raised various legal and ethical issues relating to the development of AI and robotics in the workplace. The suggestion is that as AI replaces jobs currently done by humans, so taxes paid by these workers will reduce and this will see a squeezing of the government budget to deal with this workplace disruption combined with more people out of work, reducing household incomes. Replacement of blue-collar workers has been happening for some time, but more recently, the impacts of AI are looking like they will have a negative effect on white-collar unemployment.
There is evidence to back up this view that use of AI is accelerating with the sale of robots in the EU increasing by 29% in 2015, having averaged just 17% per year from 2010-2014. In addition, major disruptors like Amazon have been piloting a “clicks to bricks” strategy in which consumers can go into an Amazon outlet with no checkouts or check out staff. Such moves could lead to many families’ incomes being reduced by losing a second income from such store jobs.
Taxing AI or a robot tax has been criticised by some as a burden on innovation and a backwards step in digital development, but last week talking to Forbes, Bill Gates came out on the side of taxing robots saying “if you can take the labour that used to do the thing automation replaced, and financially and training-wise and fulfilment-wise have that person go off and do other things, then you’re net ahead. But you can’t just give up that income tax, because that’s part of how you’ve been funding it”
Back in the UK, there has not yet been any comment from the government on taxing robots. In a recent article, the Financial Times ran a piece briefly exploring the possibility of the UK government introducing a tax on robots to fund the shortfall in public finances having given self imposed bans on raising income tax, VAT and national insurance. Despite this, a look at press coverage in the UK suggests that the concept of a Robot Tax is not yet being debated this side of the channel.
Back in the European Parliament, the European Commissioner for research science and innovation, Carlos Moedas, speaking in the debate said, “This is only the beginning. Without doubt we need to frame and facilitate the technical revolution brought by autonomous systems”. So it seems that like the robots of the future may inevitably face death and taxes alongside the rest of us.