If a robot walks like you, talks likes you, it had better pay taxes like you.
That’s what Bill Gates seems to think anyway. “Right now, the human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory, that income is taxed and you get income tax, social security tax, all those things. If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level,” he said in an interview with Quartz.
Gates doesn’t seem particularly concerned with robots taking up human jobs, for he seems to think that humans can be utilized in areas where robots still can’t be useful. “And what the world wants is to take this opportunity to make all the goods and services we have today, and free up labor, let us do a better job of reaching out to the elderly, having smaller class sizes, helping kids with special needs. You know, all of those are things where human empathy and understanding are still very, very unique. And we still deal with an immense shortage of people to help out there.”
Gates believes that in part, a tax on robots will help ease the displacement that’ll be caused by automation. “Well, at a time when people are saying that the arrival of that robot is a net loss because of displacement, you ought to be willing to raise the tax level and even slow down the speed of that adoption somewhat to figure out, “OK, what about the communities where this has a particularly big impact? Which transition programs have worked and what type of funding do those require?,” he asked.
It’s not a stance you’d expect from a technologist whose pathbreaking computer software helped him become the richest man in the world. But things have changed since the Windows operating system changed computing in the 1990s – the pace of automation has accelerated considerably since then. Self driving cars might just be around the corner, drones have now started delivering pizzas and putting out fires. Closer home, IT majors have already started culling jobs and automating them – Wipro said it sees 10000 job cuts because it’ll be more efficient to have computers perform them, and HDFC bank has stationed robots at its branches to help customers.
These changes are going to cause considerable reorganization in the workforce over the next few years, and the human cost of his displacement could be large. Gates says that a tax, instead of a blanket ban on innovation that leads to job cuts, is the way to go. “Some of it (the tax) 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,” he says. And he thinks that the benefits and profits from automation are going to be so great that tech companies won’t mind a tax. “I don’t think the robot companies are going to be outraged that there might be a tax. It’s OK,” he says.