Good Thinking

Robot taxes and universal basic income: How do we manage our automated future?

Robot taxes and universal basi...
Automation and artificial intelligence are set to replace humans in a wider array of jobs than ever before, so how does society deal with it?
Automation and artificial intelligence are set to replace humans in a wider array of jobs than ever before, so how does society deal with it?
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Elon Musk is an outspoken advocate of universal basic income
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Elon Musk is an outspoken advocate of universal basic income
In 2013 Swiss activists gathered 125,000 signatures forcing a referendum on the issue of UBI. In 2016 an overwhelming 76 percent of the population voted against implementing the system
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In 2013 Swiss activists gathered 125,000 signatures forcing a referendum on the issue of UBI. In 2016 an overwhelming 76 percent of the population voted against implementing the system
A group of activists in Switzerland have started up the collective 'Robots For Basic Income'
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A group of activists in Switzerland have started up the collective 'Robots For Basic Income'
Automation and artificial intelligence are set to replace humans in a wider array of jobs than ever before, so how does society deal with it?
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Automation and artificial intelligence are set to replace humans in a wider array of jobs than ever before, so how does society deal with it?
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As more and more jobs are becoming automated, the world faces a dramatic shift in the underlying structures of its labor economies over the next 20 to 50 years. The conversation is slowly becoming more prominent in the mainstream with several major figures highlighting the problem and proposing different solutions. Elon Musk maintains that the idea of a universal basic income is the best solution, while Bill Gates advocates for a robot tax.

It's undeniable, we are entering a revolution in our labor economy. Numerous recent reports have reached some confronting conclusions as to the effects of automation and artificial intelligence on our current work force. A striking report from Oxford University in 2013 estimated that about 47 percent of the total current US work force is at risk of becoming redundant due to automation or artificial intelligence. Another study in 2015 found that 45 percent of jobs in the US right now could be replaced by currently demonstrated technologies.

Late in 2016, Obama's White House released a report warning that measures needed to be taken to manage the millions of jobs that could be lost in the coming years due to technological advances. Despite societies having faced similar labor transitions in the past due to technological advancements displacing workers, we seem to be speeding through a transitional phase at a pace that may exceed our ability to naturally adapt. In an interview with Wired in 2016, President Obama expressed his concern saying, "I do think that we may be in a slightly different period now, simply because of the pervasive applicability of AI and other technologies."

The two big solutions to our looming unemployment crisis currently hitting the mainstream conversation are the institution of a tax on robots and a universal basic income.

How do we tax robots?

Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates came out in favor of a robot tax in a recent interview with Quartz. Gates explained that in our current climate you have workers who earn income that is taxed, but when their job is replaced by a robot you are losing that income tax revenue. The clearest solution he sees is to tax the robots at a similar level to the human worker it has displaced.

Bill Gates thinks we should tax the robot that takes your job

The revenue garnered from these robot taxes could then be used to support and retrain those unemployed workers, ultimately moving them into new forms of employment. It's an enticingly simple solution to a complex global problem. It's also becoming popular in certain political arenas, with prominent advocacy from surprise socialist front-runner in the upcoming French election, Benoit Hamon.

So what's wrong with a robot tax?

Well, apart from a confusing burden of implementation (for example, how much automation in a job would equal a taxable rate?), this really amounts to a tax on businesses that would inevitably result in a trickle down to the consumer. If a business was to make the decision to automate a percentage of its workforce, the technology itself would be a significant up-front cost before even adding an ongoing robot tax. The tax would ultimately either slow the rate of automated adoption and robotic development, or result in a sharp inflation of costs to the general public.

This is, of course, a simplistic interpretation of events, but not an unreasonable one. In fact, just recently the European Parliament debated this very issue, and while approving a raft of robot law proposals to regulate and manage the growing industry, they roundly rejected the idea of a robot tax.

The big alternative being touted around the world by many is the idea of a universal basic income.

Elon Musk is an outspoken advocate of universal basic income
Elon Musk is an outspoken advocate of universal basic income

Money for nothing

Elon Musk has been a vocal proponent of a universal basic income (UBI) for several years now. Most recently in February 2017 he reiterated his support of the idea at a summit in Dubai saying, "I don't think we're going to have a choice, I think it's going to be necessary. There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better."

UBI is an even more simplistic solution to our oncoming problems than the robot tax. The idea proposes that all citizens of a country receive a regular unconditional sum of money, either monthly or annually, that is calculated to cover basic living expenses. The UBI is touted as being an efficient way to replace the unwieldy bureaucratic mechanisms of many governmental social welfare systems.

Economists are still debating the cost-effectiveness of UBI, but there are many who believe that the total cost of current large and inefficient welfare systems are higher than the potential cost of UBI. Charles Murray, a prominent advocate of UBI has prolifically written of a proposal to eliminate all current welfare systems in the United States and replace them with a universal US$10,000 guaranteed income for every citizen. He estimated that this would be cheaper than the combined costs of current systems in place, but that has been debated with others claiming his numbers are fundamentally wrong.

When his proposal was put to a panel of expert economists, 58 percent either disagreed or strongly disagreed that it was a better policy than the status quo. It is worth noting many economists surveyed in that particular poll explained that they were responding more to the generalized extremity and lack of nuance in Murray's specific system.

Pushing aside the economic factor for a moment, the most heated debates surrounding an implementation of UBI tend to be concern over the social consequences. After all, if people didn't need to work then why would they? Would we basically be funding a future of lazy, unmotivated human beings?

A group of activists in Switzerland have started up the collective 'Robots For Basic Income'
A group of activists in Switzerland have started up the collective 'Robots For Basic Income'

But what would we all do?

This is a common concern railed against UBI, but it may be more of a philosophical concern than a pragmatic one. Several pilot UBI projects have shown that households receiving cash handouts have actually increased their labor and production outputs. In India several NGOs piloted UBI and found that those who received the grants doubled their production work when compared to similar households not receiving the grants.

An extensive trial in a small Canadian town in the 1970s produced similar results, showing the guaranteed income system resulted in a larger volume of high school students reaching the 12th grade, as well as an 8.5 percent drop in hospital visits and a reduction in domestic violence cases.

"It's surprising to find that it actually works, that people don't quit their jobs," remarked Evelyn Forget, a sociology professor who recently reevaluated the records from that Canadian pilot study in the 1970s, "There's this fear that if we have too much freedom, we might misuse it."

In 2013 Swiss activists gathered 125,000 signatures forcing a referendum on the issue of UBI. In 2016 an overwhelming 76 percent of the population voted against implementing the system
In 2013 Swiss activists gathered 125,000 signatures forcing a referendum on the issue of UBI. In 2016 an overwhelming 76 percent of the population voted against implementing the system

At its core we return to the philosophical questions regarding the general effects of UBI on society. For generations our occupations have guided and structured our lives and our identities. It is undeniable that UBI would alter this, but it could easily be argued that this ideological shift is already happening anyway.

The new generation of millennials are currently redefining older perceptions of work and career. They are known as the job-hopping generation and have be shown to care more about personal fulfilment in their job over money.

These attitudes seem to signal that for the younger generations, UBI would offer a safety net allowing personal creative explorations, enhanced education, and even the ability to take the time to cultivate new income streams from different endeavors. As we look to almost half of our current workforce becoming redundant through automation over the coming years, we will certainly need to be working as a society to develop new industries, occupations and income streams. Is UBI the most straight-forward way to achieve this outcome?

Whatever you believe is the best way forward, be it robot taxes, UBI or its more pragmatic variant, the negative income tax, everyone can agree that our labor economies are facing some dramatic looming changes. Something will certainly need to be done and the discussion needs to be had, so let's have it.

We'd love to hear your thoughts on the topic. Sound off in the comments below.

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34 comments
ArthurD.Howland
I think the UBI is a great idea. Current welfare allocates resources inefficiently. For example, in Arlington Va we taxpayers spent $133M to build a shelter for 80 people. It would have literally been cheaper to buy a house for these people in another city in the same state. More ironically the shelter is attached to the same building my job is in, so I commute an hour to get to work because I can't afford to live in that area but homeless people get it for free? Example 2, DC mayor's real estate friends do deals to house the homeless for $4K/month... is that an efficient use of DC Taxpayer funds? No it is not. UBI will help get the corruption out.
JohnReaves
It's a real issue but a narrow perspective. The history of civilization for thousands of years is about the destruction of work; there is still somehow plenty of work to do. In fact, reducing quantities of an input (e.g. work) to a production process seldom reduces demand for that input, it usually increases it because we always want more ... the question for the future is, more of what? What will we want that's worth working for?
AG4000
People need to start thinking of UBI as a potential solution to a lot of global issues. The argument for global security easily outweighs the concern that there will be a bunch of freeloaders, especially now that robots are in the mix. What I mean can be summed up by looking at 3 recent TED Talks that have nothing to do with UBI. 1) Sarah Parcak - Help discover ancient ruins, she says world heritage sites are getting looted, the reason is people need money more than ever. Her solution, spend millions on a crowdsource project to look at sites via satellite. 2) Deeyah Khan - What We Don't Know About Europe's Muslim Kids, she interviewed convicted terrorists and didn't find 'monsters' she found broken people, torn between their culture and their country. Other talks have also highlighted that extremists draw on broken down people with few other options. 3) Caleb Barlow - Where is Cybercrime really coming from? He talks of a huge underground economy, a Deep Web full of people willing to do whatever terrible thing you want as long as you pay.
Do you think people would be looting the pyramids, joining extremists groups, or hacking for money if they had a UBI allowing them to follow their dreams? Here's a bonus TED talk to think about, Paul Knoepfler - The ethical dilemma of designer babies, he talks about CRISPR and how much of a game changer it is, and the widespread impacts it can have. Think of this like hacking the living world, UBI could help prevent bio-hackers for money like we already have for computers.
I feel the same way about healthcare, not having it is a huge risk. Everyone loves 'Breaking Bad' but no one seems to realize it wouldn't have happened if the character had healthcare. Without these universal programs we are creating the problems we are willing to spend billions to try to fight. Look at cyber crime, can the governments ever hope to stay ahead of that? If you want to get really worried watch Sugata Mitra's TED talks showing kids teaching themselves to use computers, and think about where we send all of our e-waste. UBI is not about altruism it's about global security but only if we can apply it across the world. How to implement this will be the trick to figure out but the first step is to see the potential, and to agree we need it.
AG
It should be an automation tax. Automation has been going on for decades but with the exception of few countries like Canada, there is no focus on re-training the unemployed. Moreover, the current benefit system in most countries motivates to continue to be un-employed. UBI for all with focused re-training of un-employed would a whole new world of opportunities for the workforce motivating a higher level of output resulting from an unconditional income security, re-training options and Happiness. Why would anyone not want to increase their income if given the opportunity to better one self.
PabloMartin
I'd also like to recommend any TED talks with Yuval Noha Harari the author of Sapiens and Homo Deus. The problem with UBI is what's actually Universal? and Basic? is it only clothes, food and shelter? Medical healthcare to what degree?and if everything costs the same as today how's that transition going to happen?...In the short term I'd love to see new technologies lowering the usual homeowner costs that people have (You know, solar panels and your own electricity, automated cars driving around you can just hop on and lab food that comes cheap). Very exciting times ahead!
Sieg
Hi, My view is rather simplistic. By 2050 or earlier there will be virtually no jobs that robots, including the designing of them, can not do better. With the advent of quantum computing the rate of progress will increase. What then? Our governments, including all the ones that are on the election path or just have come in, promise to increase the number of jobs, a promise they cannot possibly keep and the world population is still growing. To illustrate just take a look at UBER. Presently they have lot of drivers under contract but they are also spending millions on autonomous cars both passemger and commercial. In the next few years thousands and thousands of drivers will be out of a job, but the company will be carring on making money for the benefit of a few. So my way in Ubers case would be that at least they should allow each driver to invest in one of these cars to keep on earning a living. Either the government and the top 5% and their companies provide for the millions that will be out of work or there will be huge social upraisings.
EUbrainwashing
Do the sums. Robot tax is an unnecessary nonsense. So too is
Assuming robots reduce human-labour costs, (else why employ them), either the company employing them will then be more profitable (and they will pay tax pro rata on their extra profits) or the cost of the goods or service provided, with the use of robotic labour, will fall pro rata, (and very likely a mix of the both).
If the company pays tax on the additional profit it should soon equate to being 'one and the same' as some complex method of judging and calculating how much work is robotic.
If the price of the goods/service falls, due to robotic cost savings, then the net benefit to the wider-economy of reduced costs will either reduce the cost of living (for example) or allow higher levels of consumer taxation.
If we have robotic hospital staff, for example, then taxation or health insurance costs can be reduced. If human workers have less work opportunity, and as a result less gross salary goes into the economy, the cost of living, amortised across the wider economy, will ultimately fall pro rata too.
People will need less money to live just as well or better. People will work less perhaps but adapt their skills to provide more and more specialised services that are not economic or possible for robotic labour to usefully provide.
It has already happened. This effect is what has taken place with the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, the technological revolution, globalisation and so on. The economy adapts, the economy is a self-regulating system.
The two things that are necessary for a burgeoning robotic revolution is 1). for government to keep away and let market forces do their 'self-regulating' work untainted, and 2). not take any notice of people like Bill Gates who always have nothing to hide but a hidden agenda.
The same too with a universal basic income (UBI) and moves towards a cashless society. These are very dangerous ideas for the continued freedom of people and for restraining the leviathan of 'the state' and its big money/power corporate masters.
Aross
The problem is one of too much control by the people who benefit most from automation. It is not the general public but the one percent. Every solution put forward these days are what I like to call rich man's solutions for poor man's problems. Every time there is an innovation in business it benefits the producer not the consumer. In my opinion we need to reduce automation down to only jobs that would be hazardous to human health and safety, reduce part time jobs to full time jobs and structure the tax systems so that people are able to retain enough of their earnings to live. In many countries with a minimum wage set up people with a minimum wage actually pay income tax on that money. I feel that if we get everybody back working and earning a livable wage it would restore dignity and reduce crime and yes even terrorism. Programs like UBI, welfare and minimum wages don't do this. Lets face it people with too much free time on their hands and too little resources tend to resort to other not always legal means to survive.
piperTom
Ned Ludd would be so proud. We're just about to eliminate work, just like in 1800. But, instead of breaking the machines, we'll tax them. The article goes off the rails at the very start, asking "how will we manage..." That 'we' is, of course, politicians and bureaucrats, whose historic performance is... is... is pitiful. The question should have been "should 'we' manage..." or even better "CAN we manage..." The answer is NO. You cannot and you shouldn't try. If the busybodies and the do-gooders will stay out of the way, people will deal with it.
Bob Stuart
If the robots are not taxed for the UBI, they should be owned only by displaced workers, not corporations. Capitalism only operates for fairness where the players are substantially equal economically.