Is it right to tax the robots?

Rather than fear the rise of robots in the workplace, the UK would do better to encourage AI. A levy on companies that replace people with machines would do the opposite

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As anxiety grows over the number of jobs susceptible to replacement by artificial intelligence, politicians are calling for the introduction of a robot tax. 

According to The Telegraph, Labour frontbenchers, including the shadow minister for tech and digital economy Alex Davies-Jones, discussed the concept of a levy on companies which moved to automate roles, at a fringe event at last month’s party conference. 

Concern around redundancies is fair, of course ⁠– no economy can thrive alongside mass unemployment ⁠– but such an idea feels at odds with any ambition to make the UK a world leader in AI

AI offers opportunities as well as challenges

When it comes to regulating AI, policymakers should be careful not to succumb to a Luddite fallacy. Indeed, just as with the switch from horses to cars and the internet revolution, new technology has the potential to create more jobs than it replaces.

To penalise businesses, particularly small ones, for embracing innovation to increase their rate of production or enhance their services, feels anti-competitive.

Imagine, for argument’s sake, that 10 robots are capable of doing the work of 100 humans. A sufficiently high tax on robots could prevent any of these from being built. Without access to robot labour, a small company might never export internationally.

Would it not be better for consumers to enjoy the benefits of extra output, while establishing, instead, a new range of tax incentives and transfer policies to protect workers?

You can teach an old human new tricks

Jobs might become redundant but humans should not. Rather than tax robots, then, the next UK government, regardless of which party wins the general election, should focus on incentives for retraining and redeploying any displaced staff.

Robots, after all, require programmers and engineers. And outside the technical sphere humans still have an edge in original and creative thinking

If companies can deliver better products and services because of AI and increase their profit margins, they should be able to keep as much of that money as possible.

Access to any relief should be granted on the condition that a company will create a minimum number of different roles, proportionate to the size of the organisation, which were not possible before AI afforded it the time and the tools to come up with them. 

Productivity, not politics, should guide AI policymaking

The inherent value of work is sometimes overstated. Why is it preferable for humans to work long hours, potentially to the detriment of their physical health, when a robot might save them the time and effort? Wider AI adoption could lead to a better work/life balance for many people.

Nevertheless, any job redundancies caused by AI need to be managed responsibly. And so while the government should not intervene to the point that innovation or efficiencies are rendered taboo, businesses should be reminded of their social responsibilities.

Businesses which boom using AI should be encouraged to create more complex, interesting, varied, and most importantly, rewarding employment. This could translate to a more empowered, skilled and confident consumer base, as well as a deeper talent pool to recruit from.

That would surely be good news for both businesses and society.