Across the horizon, the robots are coming. This is not automation fear-mongering, but simply a statement of fact. As we tumble heedlessly into the future, humans will collectively need to decide how to confront and co-exist in the ever-expanding robotics landscape.
Bill Gates has an answer. Though a techno-optimist, the Microsoft co-founder believes one way to slow the explosion of automation is to tax companies’ usage of robots replacing human jobs, as he explained in an interview with Quartz.
Gates’ response is noteworthy, as his company is one of the global leaders in emerging robotic technologies, including their recent formation of the Microsoft AI and Research Group.
Gates said that a robot tax could finance jobs taking care of elderly people or working with kids in schools, for which needs are unmet and to which humans are particularly well suited. He argues that governments must oversee such programs rather than relying on businesses, in order to redirect the jobs to help people with lower incomes.
This very proposal was just posited in the European Union, with the majority of lawmakers ultimately voting against the so-called “robot tax.” The EU’s decision was praised by the robotics community. As the Frankfurt-based International Federation of Robotics told Reuters, “The IFR believes that the idea to introduce a robot tax would have had a very negative impact on competitiveness and employment.”
This also comes during a week when Tesla’s Elon Musk put forth future possibilities of humans merging with robots to combat humans from becoming irrelevant. Speaking at the World Government Summit in Dubai, he also touched on the oncoming development of autonomous cars. Musk believes the gradual replacement of human drivers over the next 20 years will lead to major disruption, leaving an estimated 12 to 15 percent of the global workforce unemployed.
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“[T]here are many people whose jobs are to drive. In fact I think it might be the single largest employer of people … Driving in various forms,” said Musk, according to CNBC. “So we need to figure out new roles for what do those people do, but it will be very disruptive and very quick.”
So maybe we should listen to Bill Gates’ advice—robots need to start paying their damn taxes.