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Tax robots?

Nov 22,2018
Park Seong-won
The author is a researcher at the National Assembly Futures Institute.

In the age of automation and artificial intelligence-powered smart technology, the possibility of levying a tax on robotic work, which could crowd out the human equivalent, has been suggested. Googling the words “robot tax” generates 1.64 million related stories in Korean and 74.3 million in English. Why all the fuss?

Robotics has evolved at such a pace that it no longer only threatens workers doing simple jobs. The machines are learning and starting to respond to complex settings to increase understanding and make independent judgments about the appropriate action. Their multi-tasking and intelligence have progressed to endanger not only factory, but also office work. Their empowerment could pose a direct threat to the livelihoods of salaried workers.

The idea is to levy taxes on companies using robots instead of human labor. The funds raised will finance jobs for or the livelihoods of those who have lost work to machines. The Seoul government recently announced that it will limit tax incentives on automated machines. Some foreign media suggested that this was the first robot tax.

The concept is an extension of traditional taxes on facility assets and capital. Tax is levied on the income that enterprises make from their employment in production. But the new tax has a different social-economic significance as it is applied not just on capital, but on “intelligent” assets. The European Parliament has decided to classify robotic workers as “electronic persons” to set the legal grounds for regulation and taxation. Some are opposed to the tax, fearing it could disrupt innovation. Recognizing a robot as a “human personality” would be a huge leap in the history of mankind.

The landscape change calls for discussions on the future of labor, education and social policy. Classrooms should teach coexistence with robots. Workers should decide what work should be handed over to robots to allow humans to concentrate on more meaningful tasks.

Looking further down the road, robots could one day be treated as personalities beyond the category of intelligent capital assets. Machines may come to think, feel and act like humans. That day may call for a bill of rights for robots just as the British did in the 17th century. The abilities of robots could exceed those of humans and they could protest being taxed more than humans. Robots could become responsible for day-to-day work, and humans might have to demand their right to minimum or maximum work. Certain questions could be raised about inequalities if humans benefit from the robot tax beyond a certain level.

Then there could be concerns about robotized humans. Humans may advance technology to enhance capabilities to compete better against robots. Transhumans — or cyborgs — are humans armed with high-tech gadgets for machine-like reinforcement in mental, physical and emotional capabilities. The boundary between labor and capital would become blurry. What is machine and what is not could become ambiguous.

In the future, humankind could pose some political problems for machines, and robots may discuss amongst themselves what humans to accept in their community depending on what kind of life and society robots envision.

The debate over a robot tax has expanded from an end of labor to an end of a human-dominated civilization discussion. The priority should be to define what kind of levy is appropriate for the employment of smart machines so as not to deter the advancement in technology and at the same time not threaten human employment. The tax rate could hinge on the number of human jobs or the wages those machines will replace.

A policy should be comprehensive to reflect human mental and physical changes as well as health levels instead of merely studying the impact technological of advances at workplaces or to work standards. Employers should jointly fund programs to train workers with new capabilities demanded in the new age. Various cooperatives should be formed across industry to foster concerted efforts. The robot tax debate leads to fundamental questions: who will benefit from developments in science and technology and to where should the fruits be distributed?

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 21, Page 33