Until recently, death and taxes were considered the two inevitabilities of life. But today you can add robots to that list. Robots: efficient and tireless and precise beyond all human capability. Robots taking jobs—this prospect seems inevitable. The question is not how governments can prevent this, but how they will address it.
One option might be to tax robots, and to give that money to the humans.
Last week, in the run-up to Franch's presidential election this April, the country's Socialist Party chose Benoît Hamon as its candidate. The 49-year-old former education minister has made headlines with his unusual proposals, including shorter working hours, legalizing weed, a universal basic income and—perhaps most controversially—a tax on robots.
On his campaign website, Hamon explains his proposal thus (translated from French):
When a worker is replaced by a machine, the wealth created benefits the shareholders. I propose, therefore, to tax this wealth—by applying the social contributions on the whole of the added value and not just on the work.
This is interesting: where robots outdo human productivity, the taxes on them would increase. But it also raises questions: What exactly is a robot's "added value," and can it be measured by the number of humans a machine replaces?
Hamon's idea might look like the work of a Luddite, but his willingness to address automation as a campaign issue is long overdue. Neither major candidate directly addressed it during the US presidential election last year, instead calling to invest in manufacturing (Clinton), or ignoring the issue entirely (Trump). Meanwhile in the UK, Tory leadership has ignored calls to assess the impact of robots on employment. Hamon might just be the first major political candidate in a western country to address the issue head on.
That Hamon would propose Universal Basic Income (UBI)—the idea of an unconditional allowance paid to every citizen—is also timely. It's currently being considered in India and in Scotland, is being trialled in Finland and will soon be trialled in parts of Canada. With robots poised to claim two-thirds of human employment (hitting developing countries the hardest) who's to dismiss UBI as extreme?
Hamon's proposal has already attracted controversy—variously described as a "bad idea," "EU lunacy" and (my personal favorite, via The Telegraph) "a barmy idea that destroys wealth." But others welcome Hamon as an underdog, calling him the "Bernie Sanders of France."
To better understand the context surrounding Hamon's proposed tax on robots I spoke with Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, authors of Inventing the Future , a book which envisions a post-capitalist world without work. Srnicek applauded Hamon's proposal: "We have massive inequality, with a handful of elites owning the rest of society, and we have a huge wave of automation about to radically change the labour market. Taxing the wealthy and using it to fund ideas like a basic income is essential for sharing the prosperity and freedom that new technologies could give us."
Williams also praised Hamon's proposal but saw complications, pointing out that the benefits of a robot tax would likely be short-lived: "More interesting is finding a utopian possibility in automation. But that would involve, I suspect, the state taking a stronger role in regulating and guiding the process of automation, as well as challenging the idea that these automation platforms will necessarily be privately operated."
France might be the perfect testing ground for such a proposal, where manufacturing employs a large population segment directly threatened by automation. There's a parallel to be drawn here with America, where in 2016 manufacturing hit record levels of production. This work requires less and less human involvement, and Trumpian promises of industry returning to America are deceptive, as many of these factories will employ a robot workforce (already Foxconn, who replaced 60,000 of their Chinese workers with robots last year, are being courted by Trump).
In 2016 the EU drafted a plan to treat robots as "electronic persons," making their owners liable to pay social security for them. The paper discusses AI as well as machines, listing "robots, bots, androids and other manifestations of artificial intelligence ('AI')."
The term "electronic person" might sound outlandish, but it prompts a question:What exactly is a robot? Must a robot have a body, or can it be a virtual machine? Is a robot defined by the job it does, and the human it makes obsolete? What if the job the robot does could never have been done by humans in the first place?
Similarly, would a robot tax be proportionate to the robot's intelligence, or to its productivity?
A robot is a form of capital, but its value is more than the sum of its parts. Today machine learning means that the more a robot works, the more its ability to work increases. Robots serve a dual purpose, collecting information which is sold on or used to improve their function. This makes some robots more powerful, and profitable, than others–should information be taxed instead?
This current wave of automation might be the one to disprove the Luddite Fallacy, because today the more our machines learn, the more they learn to learn. This makes their value extremely difficult to pin down (figuratively and literally, as the data they gather will most likely be passed through countries with lenient tax regimes).
Hamon's chances of winning remain slim (currently, 15 percent of voters say they will support him), but his proposals highlight a need in the wider world to address automation as a political issue. So often the horror in fiction about robots derives from the idea of them developing self-awareness. But in reality it they ever overpower us, it will be due to human complacency and greed.