As businesses increasingly rely on machines with brains to do the jobs once held by humans, tech billionaire Bill Gates has proposed taxing companies who use robots in an effort to slow the wave of automation in the work place and finance other types of employment.
Gates recently sat down for an interview with Quartz to discuss his proposed robot tax, which he said could compensate for jobs lost to robots by funding training for other jobs where human interaction is still needed, like looking after the elderly or working with young kids. He asserted, however, that such a program would have to be monitored by the federal government — not big businesses. The goal is to redirect job opportunities freed up by wide-spread automation to help those with lower incomes, according to the publication.
“Certainly, there will be taxes that relate to automation,” Gates said. “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.
“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,” he added. “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.”
The Microsoft founder went on to say he didn’t think robot companies would be “outraged” at the idea of paying a tax, especially since profits generated by labor-saving automation would help fund labor in other areas. However, some have argued that such a tax would discourage tech innovation, a potential pitfall the tech billionaire disputes.
“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,” Gates explained. “People should be figuring it out.”
“It is really bad if people overall have more fear about what innovation is going to do than they have enthusiasm,” he continued. “That means they won’t shape it for the positive things it can do. And, you know, taxation is certainly a better way to handle [automation] than just banning some elements of it.”
The idea of implementing a robot tax isn’t new. Quartz reported that the European Union once considered taxing robot owners to fund training for workers who had been displaced. The idea was ultimately rejected by lawmakers on Feb. 16.
In order for a robot taxation system to work, Gates reiterated the fact that it would have to be overseen by the government. He said businesses would be incapable of fairly distributing the excess employment opportunities to those who need it most.
If you want to do [something about] inequity, a lot of the excess labor is going to need to go to help the people who have lower incomes,” he told Quartz. “And so it means that you can amp up social services for old people and handicapped people and you can take the education sector and put more labor in there. Yes, some of it will go to, ‘Hey, we’ll be richer and people will buy more things.’ But the inequity-solving part, absolutely government’s got a big role to play there.”