Is a Robot tax on companies using AI a way of protecting the workforce?

Don’t fear the robots, they’re already here.

While there may be disagreements on whether AI is something to worry about or not, there is general agreement that it will change the workforce. What is a potential concern is how quickly these changes will appear. Anyone who has been watching Inside the Factory1 can see how few people are needed on production lines that are largely automated: a single person with the title “manager” whose team consists entirely of robots. It wasn’t too long ago that these factories would have been full of manual labour.

The nature of our workforce has changed. It’s been changing constantly – the AI revolution is no different in that respect. We just need to be aware of the speed and scale of potential change and ensure that we are giving everyone the opportunity to be skilled in the roles that will form part of our future. There is an inevitability about this. Just as globalisation made it easy for companies to outsource work to cheaper locations (and even easier with micro contract sites) AI will make it cheaper and easier for companies to do tasks so it will be adopted. Tasks that aren’t interesting enough or wide market enough or even too difficult right now to be automated will still need human workers. Everything else will slowly be lost “to the robots”.

I expect that my daughter will never learn to drive. With the UK government announcing a ban to the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040 2. I strongly suspect that self-driving electric vehicles will be very prevalent before then3. While the UK ban is on domestic vehicles, I think there will be a natural adoption of autonomous vehicles in the haulage industry – avoiding the problem of long drives for fatiguing humans. There will still be demand for people who can drive for a while as not all countries will go driverless at the same time.

AI is already encroaching into other skilled areas – classification of medical imagery, which used to take years of training humans, can be deployed at scale for fast and accurate diagnosis. If your job involves doing the same thing day in and day out then yes, you should be worried.

John Snowden has suggested4 a “Robot Tax” which would penalise companies using robots over humans as its workforce, and the money from which could directly support a citizens’ income at a higher level than the current National or Living wages. While the idea seems reasonable on the surface, I don’t believe that it could work. With globalisation, this would encourage companies with automated workforces to move to countries that do not have this tax, decreasing revenues from other sources and adding to unemployment from the humans they would otherwise have employed. Similarly, just like road tax isn’t ring fenced for our roads, fuel duty isn’t kept for environmental projects and national insurance isn’t directly fed into the NHS, any revenue generated would be fed into the total pot of income for the government of the day, who would decide how to allocate it. If there’s anything I have learned from 20 years of engagement in politics, it’s that there is never enough money and changing the balance does not have the simplistic predicted effects.

I dislike the idea of taxing innovation and progress to support working practises established in the last century and I do not believe it will work. So how else can the prospect of mass unemployment be countered? Education is always the first step. Young people are naturally inquisitive, creative and ask “why” without the burden of how things have always been. These are the entrepreneurs of the future and will find the new opportunities around AI that others haven’t thought about yet. We need to teach them about these technologies in greater depth. But we also need to encourage creativity alongside logic. There are some huge problems on the horizon in terms of providing food and energy for the world and I don’t see jobs diminishing in these areas in the next 50 years.  Those early Mars colonists will need to be highly skilled in multiple areas, including functioning without the aid of AI should it be required. With robot manufacture becoming more prevalent, hand crafted items will be considered more and more luxurious as this century progresses. Maximising energy production for the growing needs of the world while minimising resource consumption will be a huge challenge. Finally, conservation will continue to be an issue.   I see AI and robotics assisting in these pursuits, but we’re going to need to put a lot of human effort towards them as well.

The best way to protect yourself from the rise of the robots is to find something you are passionate about and get very good at it, with enough general skills that you can be adaptable. Even if you don’t end up in STEM, be aware of the changes coming.

  1. On iplayer, but only available in the UK.
  2. Which seems like a long way away, but it’s only a couple of decades and will come around very quickly.
  3. Indeed if they didn’t have to co-exist with human controlled vehicles then I think that they would come far sooner.
  4. Mensa Magazine July 2017, not available online
janet

Dr Janet is a Molecular Biochemistry graduate from Oxford University with a doctorate in Computational Neuroscience from Sussex. I’m currently studying for a third degree in Mathematics with Open University.


During the day, and sometimes out of hours, I work as a Chief Science Officer. You can read all about that on my LinkedIn page.


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janet

Dr Janet is a Molecular Biochemistry graduate from Oxford University with a doctorate in Computational Neuroscience from Sussex. I’m currently studying for a third degree in Mathematics with Open University.

During the day, and sometimes out of hours, I work as a Chief Science Officer. You can read all about that on my LinkedIn page.

4 thoughts on “Is a Robot tax on companies using AI a way of protecting the workforce?”

  1. I’m not sure I totally agree with the premise of this article about the impact of AI in the near future.

    Currently, AI is very good at image/speech recognition (which a child of 5 can do) and the ability to process vast quantities of data to extract actionable knowledge. None of this is going to fundamentally alter the landscape.

    The nearest to what you’re pointing at is IBM Watson, but actually thats been over hyped and there was recent paper I believe from Gartner which poured cold water on the future for IBM’s AI business unit.

    The problem is that AI that is able to attack cognitive capabilities is really hard and I’m not sure that anyone is anywhere near making significant progress on that, it may be at least 50 years before that becomes reality.

    A computer able to emulate human level intelligence/creativity is much further away than that. So, we have some time to adapt.

    1. I guess it depends on definition of near future. If people are doing repetitive jobs that are prime for AI then there’s plenty of time to skill up in other fields.

      I also completely agree with you on the timescales for cognitive scale AI, but that’s not what is needed to change the workforce – simple (relatively) AIs designed for single tasks will be pervasive relatively quickly, even for tasks that would requires years of human training. All it takes is focus on an area (such as autonomous vehicles) and the ability of AI in that narrow area jumps forward.

      What I’m seeing coming through right now are ideas for how to handle the workforce change and I disagree that taxing new technology is the way to go.

  2. Ultimately, government taxes are applied wherever value is added. So, if robotics ever does add genuine value then no doubt it will be taxed appropriately.

    Most governments appreciate that innovation needs to be fostered, so I don’t see taxes being applied until adoption is well under way and won’t be effected too much by taxation.

    Again, I’m not convinced that AI will make even repetitive tasks obsolete. For self driving cars, I suspect the next 20-50 years will be all about driver augmentation (maybe in constrained situations such as motorway driving vehicles may have modes that are autonomous), but even then I can’t see there being a day where drivers can completely switch off for a very long time, there are just too many variables to handle.

    We have had industrial automation for a very long time in manufacturing, I can see automation being applied to some knowledge based tasks, mainly those involving interpretation of data. I suspect the numbers are low, the work is highly demanding and well paid. Even then I suspect they will just be able to work more efficiently. Here in the west demands for many of their skills is actually increasing (definitely in health which would be a prime candidate, given the ageing population).

    So overall I’m actually quite optimistic (or perhaps complement!), barring any unforeseen events (like a major war) the global economy should continue to grow for quite a while. A huge number of people is still not very economically active.

    Thanks for your thoughtful blog, it’s made me think about maybe setting up my own blog!

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