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EditorialsUp Front 3/17

Up Front 3/17

Echoing the theory expounded by Ray Kurzweil in his book, The Singularity is Near, Microsoft’s Bill Gates recently pointed out that change in the coming decades will come faster than the automation that transformed production lines during the 20th century. One only has to look at the rate of change and advances in technology in the last ten years to see that they are both on the right track. However, one of the central points in Gates’ interview was the need to tax robots that take jobs that humans would have done. He pointed out that if a human did $50K worth of work they would be taxed on that salary and the money would be used to fund public services. If we don’t tax the technology that replaces human beings we quickly lose vital tax revenue. Obviously that means we need a new way of taxing automated production but the business community will no doubt fight any new taxes and has already been asking where do we draw the line? Businesses have been using automation for decades and any effort to tax it would be very complex. To start with what is a robot? Professor of Robot Ethics, Alan Winfield, talking on The Life Scientific program on BBC Radio 4 recently defined a robot as something that ‘embodies AI’ or ‘Artificial Intelligence in a physical body’. He admitted that every roboticist has their own definition. But even if a definition could one day be agreed on, the questions still come thick and fast. To the point where they are so exasperating they become ridiculous. How do you determine the correct value for an automated job? How far back do you go to recover back tax? How often should a robot get a raise? Should a robot qualify for a pension, annual holiday and maternity/paternity leave? Can we expect a robot union fighting for equal rights and threatening to strike for equal pay? And how about this—if an American soldier is serving in a designated tax-free combat zone they don’t pay tax, so does that mean that a drone should be taxed for the period where it is in the air outside of the ‘designated tax-free combat zone’? And then there’s the argument that a human couldn’t have done the job in the first place? Some of these questions might be seen as at the lighter end of the scale and obviously only scratch the surface of the problems that a robotic future offers. But the worrying truth is that it may have to be artificial intelligence that answers them.

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