As breakthroughs in the fields of automation and robotics become more common, so do debates into the realities of a changing workflow. The topic of taxation of robots — specifically the taxation of firms that utilize robots for automaton purposes — is one such example of these ongoing discussions, though one without a clear solution.
Last month, Bill Gates spoke to Quartz on the subject of robot taxation, stating “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 we’d tax the robot at a similar level. You cross the threshold of job-replacement of certain activities all sort of at once. So, you know, warehouse work, driving, room cleanup, there’s quite a few things that are meaningful job categories that, certainly in the next 20 years, being thoughtful about that extra supply is a net benefit. It’s important to have the policies to go with that.” This opinion, however, met its share of criticism; similarly a proposed measure in Europe to tax corporations that utilize robots was quickly shot down.
Robot taxation raises several hard to answer questions and difficulties. One such obstacle is the clarification of what constitutes a robot. Is a robot defined as a piece of software that automates a complex process? Is it a physical piece of automated technology? The nebulous nature of this definition creates an obstacle in the adoption of such a tax. Where is the line drawn?
A common argument made for taxation of robots is job loss — if a robot is doing the job a person could then that will result in a lost job. Though this is certainly true with any automated process, economists and other experts view the net-growth possibilities as a worthwhile investment. Economist James Bessen wrote in his response to Bill Gates’s interview “although automation will lead to further job losses in manufacturing, warehouse operations, and truck driving, the overall impact of automation across most industries will be to increase employment,” going on to compare the impact on productivity to the introduction of the bar-code scanner or ATM.
Further complicating the discussion of robot taxation is that many view it as a superficial solution to a complex problem. Robots and automated processes are not going away, after all. To this end many sides of the discussion would prefer a long-term solution to the changing workforce, such as the adoption of a universal income in order to adequately prepare for a future with growing number of automated processes.
The debate of robot taxation currently has no clear answer and will undoubtedly carry on in the near-future. One thing is clear: automated processes are not going anywhere, be they robotic manufacturing assembly or self-driving automobiles. What solutions and measures are adopted with them, however, remain to be seen.