Home Internet of Things Robot tax may be essential to avoid mass economic inequality

Robot tax may be essential to avoid mass economic inequality

Forget Asimov's three laws of robotics. The big threat of robots isn't that they will kill us; it's that they will make the rich richer and produce mass levels of inequality.

When I was a boy, robots were the stuff of science fiction. Isaac Asimov set forward his three laws of robotics that guaranteed a robot would protect humans, obey humans, and protect itself – in that order.

Like driverless cars, like finding potential earth-like planets, so too robotics is advancing significantly and widespread robotic labour is an increasingly near reality.

The threat of robots enslaving the planet and killing their human overlords remains purely SciFi. The real threat is robots will create an economic inequality that makes modern-day America look like an egalitarian utopia, economists say.

Automation has historically delivered a reduction in human labour, and the theory is that mass automation, through robots, will amplify economic disparities to such an extreme that for many life becomes unlivable.

Last month Bill Gates made headlines by proposing a robot tax. After all, human workers pay taxes on their income, why shouldn't a robot owner similarly be taxed, which, Gates said, ought then to be applied to training workers who lose their jobs.

In fact, European lawmakers have already considered this very thing and subsequently rejected it.

The robotics industry hailed the decision to reject the robot tax, claiming it would stunt innovation.

Even so, economists argue the vast automation that robots, and specifically intelligent robots, can provide will bring about a situation where the world moves from making wealth with less labour to simply making wealth without labour at all.

Statistics indicate that between 1973 and 2011, productivity increased by 80.4% while hourly compensation increased 10.7%, with the financial benefits from automation trickling up to the masters rather than down to the workers.

Consequently, the concern is that a world of mass automation where "wealth without labour" is a realistic possibility will translate to a minority owning the wealth, while the majority have no employment opportunities and thus no income.

"Capital liberated from labour means not merely the end of work, but the end of the wage," the Guardian states, further predicting a world where the elite can secede from society, enjoying an infinite supply of workerless wealth while the hoi polloi lose any strength they might otherwise have had in organising a strike or other refusal to supply labour.

Whether this bleak prediction is our current trajectory or merely negative nay-saying, the reality is legislators need to seriously put thought into the topic. Typically, law struggles to keep pace with technology, but with such meteoric pace of change as we see today, it is vital robotic labour and its impact on the workforce be debated today.


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David M Williams

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David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. Within two years, he returned to his alma mater, the University of Newcastle, as a UNIX systems manager. This was a crucial time for UNIX at the University with the advent of the World-Wide-Web and the decline of VMS. David moved on to a brief stint in consulting, before returning to the University as IT Manager in 1998. In 2001, he joined an international software company as Asia-Pacific troubleshooter, specialising in AIX, HP/UX, Solaris and database systems. Settling down in Newcastle, David then found niche roles delivering hard-core tech to the recruitment industry and presently is the Chief Information Officer for a national resources company where he particularly specialises in mergers and acquisitions and enterprise applications.