Taxing Robots to Train Humans

In the winter of 1994, I wrote a column with the title “Byte the Bullet: Tax Technology’s Returns” for a limited-distribution magazine called “Short Circuit” produced by Bill Livingston. The premise of the article was that a small tax should be applied to each personal computer sold. The tax revenues thus collected would then be applied to training those displaced from the workforce by these new technologies, thereby giving workers the skills they would need to operate in the evolving computer-supported workplace. Of course, not everyone can become a systems analyst or programmer, but many would benefit just from learning how to use computer technologies, and others might be able to support and maintain software and devices.

Twenty-odd years later, we are seeing proposals for paying folks not to work when they have been replaced by robots. That’s not a good idea, but it is one that is already in effect by default as technology-displaced unemployed, who do not have the skills needed for the many technology jobs that go unfilled, languish on welfare and destroy themselves with drugs and alcohol, or, if “more fortunate,” suffer through mind-numbing menial jobs.

Again, rather than paying workers not to work, we should be thinking about how to create jobs that might still exist and make people feel useful and productive even in a robot-dominated workplace. Then we could use the funds from a robot tax to train workers with new skills that will not have been rendered obsolete.

Of one thing we can be sure, however, and that is that the future will not be as anticipated. I recall the four-day week movement in the 1970s. We all would only work for four days and have increased leisure. I observed, facetiously but somewhat accurately, that we have indeed arrived at an average of four days’ labor per week, with many working six or seven days and others none.

So it will be with robotics. Robots and so-called artificial intelligence will enhance many aspects of our lives, but they will also have a dark side, as in the concern expressed by Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, for example. No one really knows how it will work out. But it still makes sense to educate workers in evolving technologies using money obtained from taxing the technologies that would eventually displace them.


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