A worker makes technical measurements with robots on the carbon chassis at the serial production BMW i3 electric car in the BMW factory in Leipzig on September 18, 2013. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
The growing attraction of populist ideas and parties, sometimes of the left, but more often of the nativist right is in part fuelled by the alienation of those left behind by globalization. The rise of the robots threatens further disruption. Perhaps we need to rewrite Asimov’s Laws of Robotics for the 21st century.
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
Now Bill Gates has proposed a Fourth Law in an interview with Quartz Magazine.
4. The robot that takes your job should pay taxes.
Gates’ idea is straightforward. There are plenty of jobs that machines cannot do, jobs that require empathic humans, especially in the caring professions. With an aging population we need more of these jobs. But how to pay for them with a declining workforce and the consequent decline in revenues from income tax? Taxing the robots gets round this. They would still offer significant savings to employers. Robots do not need salaries, pensions or healthcare plans. But governments need tax revenues.
There is also the human cost of disruptive technology. Rapid change might create wealth in one sector. But it frequently destroys wealth and jobs in the disrupted sectors. Gates thinks that a robot tax might disrupt the disruptors by slowing down the take-up of technological change so that society has time to adjust and forestall the mass unemployment and deskilling of whole communities that we can see today in America’s Rust Belt or the old industrial towns of the UK.
Gates is less clear on how such a tax could be implemented but he remains optimistic.
There are many ways to take that extra productivity and generate more taxes. Exactly how you’d do it, measure it, you know, it’s interesting for people to start talking about now. Some of it can come on the profits that are generated by the labor-saving efficiency there. Some of it can come directly in some type of robot tax. I don’t think the robot companies are going to be outraged that there might be a tax. It’s OK.
I think he is being over optimistic there. When has any industry ever welcomed a new tax? In fact the International Federation of Robotics has welcomed a recent decision by the EU to reject a robot tax while proposing an ethical framework for their introduction.
Gates is, to his credit, a billionaire philanthropist who is prepared to put his money where his mouth is by funding healthcare programmes, especially those promoting vaccines in poor countries with high infant mortality and projects to tackle climate change. According to Wikipedia the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation had an endowment of $44.3 billion as of 31 December 2014. Gates has donated $28 billion to the foundation. Warren Buffet is another generous donor, effectively match funding the foundation’s charitable donations year on year. As a result the foundation had disbursed an average in excess of $3 billion every year from 2009 to 2014.
It is ironic that this wealth is, in part, derived from the success of Microsoft in pursuing an aggressive form of tax efficiency that some have characterized as tax avoidance amounting to US$4.6 billion a year. And Gates was not so keen on a robot tax when his own robots were taking over the world. OK, his robots were beige boxes running Microsoft office and other software. But this software was definitely a disruptive force to the white collar workers whose skills it replaced.
Bill Gates’ thinking is influenced by his position. He is a technocrat whose life experience is one of developing technological solutions to problems and seeing them implemented, usually at a profit to himself and in fierce competition with rivals. Thus Microsoft achieved a near monopoly in things it was good at like software licencing, was slow to appreciate the potential of the internet and almost missed out completely on mobile technology. Whatever the outcome in terms of success or failure, he took decisions based on market share and profitability, not on measures of social justice or out of regard for civic responsibility. Bill Gates has shifted his priorities and is now seeking solutions to social problems. There is no reason to believe that the present generation of technocrats share his vision or that they will behave any differently to the “old” Bill Gates. Remember when Microsoft was the Great Satan and Apple was cool before we learned about conditions in the Apple factories in China? It is not just in the third world or the newly industrializing countries either. Amazon have nothing to boast about regarding their tax records in the UK or the conditions of their workforce here.
Gates thinks governments have to take action and hold companies to account because he recognizes that competition precludes individual businesses from going it alone as ethical trailblazers. Here again he is being optimistic. The economy of many countries is dwarfed by the size of some corporations. According to the IMF in 2017 only 85 out of 191 selected countries had a GDP in excess of $100 billion. There were 50 companies worldwide whose revenue for 2017 exceeded $100 billion. Incidentally, Microsoft did not make the list. But its $4.6 billion annual tax “savings” exceeded the GDP of 25 countries on the IMF list.
When first world economies struggle to collect tax owed by global corporations and some of the most powerful economies in the world are complicit in tax avoidance, (Britain operates its own tax havens via its crown dependencies) and many countries are poorer and less powerful than the companies they seek to police, I have to conclude that Bill Gates eminently sensible proposals to tax robots will remain a utopian dream until we can find a way to collect the taxes that currently go uncollected. These are estimated at $600 billion worldwide with losses of at least $200 billion being borne by the newly developing countries.
So many of the worlds financial transactions take place online, everything from everyday retail transactions to the operation of complex financial markets. And in many cases tax is part of the automated process. We cannot avoid or evade VAT on purchases or PAYE for income tax. It should not be beyond the wit of the technocrats to devise similar automated procedures for collecting corporaton tax. The question is, do they have the will to disrupt the disruptors?