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Should robots pay taxes?

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A proposal focused on the specificities of human labor faces the automation of industry.

He believed software could be more valuable than hardware. That simple conviction, when carried out, forever changed the way people interact with computers, and with technology in general. While doing so, he also became immensely rich, to the point that his fortune roughly equates the GDP of Costa Rica, Honduras, and Nicaragua combined.

Bill Gates foresaw what very few other minds – like that of the dearly remembered Steve Jobs — were also able to see. Now, he sees how even though robotics is gaining a predominant role in industry, we’re still far from fully profiting from it. In an interview with Quartz magazine, Gates did not question the replacement of human laborers for robots, but he did say robots should pay taxes, so we could have more people caring for the elderly and the disabled, and more teachers in charge of classrooms with fewer students.

“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,” the businessman argued.

In addition, Gates suggests that replacing people with robots in jobs that do not require human labor would allow people to take more meaningful jobs. A “robot tax” –- some EU lawmakers have already considered such proposal — could finance higher pay for people in jobs that require human empathy and compassion:

“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. So if you can take the labor that used to do the thing automation replaces, and financially and training-wise and fulfillment-wise have that person go off and do these other things, then you’re net ahead. But you can’t just give up that income tax, because that’s part of how you’ve been funding that level of human workers.”

Gates’ authoritative voice is indeed a warning on the potential impacts of job automation and its economic consequences, including those related to our current tax culture, laws and regulations, and comes in at the right time. Globally, the transfer of automated jobs to robots is advancing by leaps and bounds.

Last year, for example, Accenture reported that it had 170 robots working in Argentina, for low added value and high automation level tasks. The inclusion of robots in its assembly line (and offices) responds to a global company policy that the company estimates would free up more than 20 percent of human work, even in areas such as customer service and sales. But the impact on human talent, they believe, would be positive if and only if the main focus of such policies implies keeping the human talent on the payroll, giving such laborers not only new valuable tasks but also education and training.

More to read: Will Big Data and artificial intelligence usher in Orwell’s vision of 1984? and Is automation taking our jobs or creating new ones?

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