Should robots be taxed?

Rise of AI ‘potential game-changer’ that could destabilize jobs, society: Labour lawyer
By Marcel Vander Wier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/30/2017
Dinosaur Robots
Dinosaur robots acting as receptionists greet a hotel employee at the Henn na Hotel Maihama Tokyo Bay in Urayasu, east of Tokyo. Credit: Issei Kato (Reuters)

For better or for worse, the age of working robots is upon us.

But are employers and government giving the transformation enough consideration? Bill Gates doesn’t think so. In February, the founder of Microsoft said global governments should look at taxing companies’ use of robots to help fund the retraining efforts of workers put out of a job.

“Right now, if a human worker does... $50,000 worth of work in a factory, that income is taxed. 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.

Also in February, European lawmakers called for legislation across the European Union to regulate the rise of robots, including an ethical framework for their development and deployment and the establishment of liability for the actions of robots such as self-driving cars, according to Reuters.

But they rejected a proposal to impose a robot tax on owners to fund support for, or retraining of, workers put out of a job by robots.

Considering the consequences

The rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and robots able to think like humans is a potential game-changer that could destabilize jobs and even society as a whole, according to James Froud, a U.K. labour lawyer at Bird and Bird in London.

“We simply don’t know what the shape of that world looks like,” he said. “In a worst-case scenario, it’s mass unemployment with people wallowing around with skills that they can’t do anything with. To my mind, that’s not a good thing unless Bill Gates’ suggestion of taxing the robots and giving everyone a happy life is the way we’re going.”

 “I don’t see why it should just be a given that sticking robots in (human) roles equals the best thing that we as a society could do,” he said. “Everyone just assumes this is going to happen; there’s kind of an inevitability (to it). I do wonder whether anyone’s stopped to think properly about what the potential consequences of that could be.”

It’s definitely time to start challenging the assumptions and looking at whether it makes sense in every capacity to just assume that removing whole sectors of human jobs is a good thing and definitely going to lead to greater productivity and efficiency, said Froud. “I’m not sure it always does.”

Government involvement will be directed by the wants of wider society, he said. And rules that narrow the definition of redundancy for dismissing employees, assign legal personalities to robots, and regulate the process in which robots may be brought into the workplace could all receive consideration from lawmakers in the near future.

Policymakers fear that an overreliance on robots could have unintended consequences on society, said Nayeem Syed, assistant general counsel for Thomson Reuters in London, who recently wrote a blog on driverless cars.

“The legal theories to address responsibility will occupy lawyers, but clarifying liability fails to address or prevent the actual and irreversible physical or financial harm to the entirely innocent,” he said. “That remains a data management and engineering challenge.”

“What is instructive and encouraging is the way policymakers have approached autonomous vehicle technologies which address a $1.7-trillion global industry,” said Syed. “They have, collectively, taken a calm, pragmatic approach engaging early and deeply manufacturers, insurers and law enforcement.”

In turn, that has granted the self-driving vehicle industry leaders sufficient notice to make investment and risk-planning decisions, he said.

Ahead of any legislative changes, however, technology continues to rapidly create new working models, resulting in employer challenges that have not yet been fully thought through, including a gig economy where many workers do not benefit from traditional employment rights, said Froud.

“The shape of the new-world working environment is something that we really need to start thinking about,” he said. “We already ought to be giving proper thought to it, albeit there’s obviously a limitation to how far one can go with something that still feels somewhat nebulous.”

What should employers do?

Employers need to assess where automation makes sense within their business model, and then determine the future state of an optimal workforce, said Syed.

“A reasonable start is well-thought-through strategies on corporate culture, followed through with effective training programs and meaningful innovation engagement,” he said.

“Change is constant. It is driven by competitive forces but tempered by regulation and government policies. Some jobs will go and not come back, and new jobs will be developed. If workers remain curious and are supported, they can use their domain knowledge and apply themselves to evolutionary change.”

Automation could claim between 1.5 million and 7.5 million Canadian jobs over the next 10 years, according to Working Without a Net, a study released in November 2016 by the Mowat Centre, a Toronto-based think tank.

Losing even one million jobs to automation within a short time period would push Canada’s unemployment rate to 12 per cent at a time when the federal government is still attempting to “clean up” after the “devastating” 2008 recession, said Jordann Thirgood, a Mowat Centre policy associate.

Without the right approach, Canada could find itself in a long-term period of economic stagnation, she said. Corporations need to take the lead in terms of anticipating future labour market shifts and retraining workers, while the federal government also has a role to play, such as developing a national skills strategy.

“There has been a much lower amount of spending in terms of government and employers in skills development and training opportunities,” said Thirgood. “That is an area where employers can step up. I think employers will probably need to start thinking about how they can invest in their employees in things like preparing them for the changes that might come.”

“The economy is shifting and the labour market is going to be dramatically different. There are a lot of gaps to be filled in areas like skills training.”

Preparing your staff for the transition to robot workers could be more difficult than it appears, said Sean Mullin, executive director of the Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Toronto.

“It’s very hard to predict exactly what future skills are needed at a specific job level, particularly as technology is changing,” he said.

The common characteristics of jobs least susceptible to automation should be assessed and critical skills identified — such as creative problem-solving, judgment and emotional intelligence.

Accordingly, HR could begin to highlight those needs in the recruitment process in an effort to hire workers who are more equipped with skills that can adapt to a changing world — a move that could help reallocate a company workforce following future automation, said Mullin.

Even if a job description does not specifically have a 100 per cent requirement for those skills, employers may want to look at a future employee with that in mind, he said.

“They have skills that are generalizable and adaptable and can be applied to other areas in a way that would be much more flexible than the average worker.”

Despite no legal obligation to do so, employers may find preparing staff is beneficial, said Froud.

 “If the individuals are prepared and educated in a way that they are taking up activities that robots are not currently performing, then you’re going to have a happier human workforce that isn’t railing against the changing world,” he said. 

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