It may sound strange, but a number of prominent people have been asking this question lately. As fears about the impact of automation grow, calls for a “robot tax” are gaining momentum. Earlier this month, the European parliament considered one for the EU. Benoît Hamon, the French Socialist party presidential candidate who is often described as his country’s Bernie Sanders, has put a robot tax in his platform. Even Bill Gates recently endorsed the idea.
The proposals vary, but they share a common premise. As machines and algorithms get smarter, they’ll replace a widening share of the workforce. A robot tax could raise revenue to retrain those displaced workers, or supply them with a basic income.
The good news is that the robot apocalypse hasn’t arrived just yet. Despite a steady stream of alarming headlines about clever computers gobbling up our jobs, the economic data suggests that automation isn’t happening on a large scale. The bad news is that if it does, it will produce a level of inequality that will make present-day America look like an egalitarian utopia by comparison.
The real threat posed by robots isn’t that they will become evil and kill us all, which is what keeps Elon Musk up at night – it’s that they will amplify economic disparities to such an extreme that life will become, quite literally, unlivable for the vast majority. A robot tax may or may not be a useful policy tool for averting this scenario. But it’s a good starting point for an important conversation. Mass automation presents a serious political problem – one that demands a serious political solution.
Automation isn’t new. In the late 16th century, an English inventor developed a knitting machine known as the stocking frame. By hand, workers averaged 100 stitches per minute; with the stocking frame, they averaged 1,000. This is the basic pattern, repeated through centuries: as technology improves, it reduces the amount of labor required to produce a certain number of goods.
So far, however, this phenomenon hasn’t produced extreme unemployment. That’s because automation can create jobs as well as destroy them. One recent example is bank tellers: ATMs began to appear in the 1970s, but the total number of tellers has actually grown since then. As ATMs made it cheaper to run a branch, banks opened more branches, leading to more tellers overall. The job description has changed –today’s tellers spend more time selling financial services than dispensing cash – but the jobs are still there.
What’s different this time is the possibility that technology will become so sophisticated that there won’t be anything left for humans to do. What if your ATM could not only give you a hundred bucks, but sell you an adjustable-rate mortgage? While the current rhetoric around artificial intelligence is overhyped, there have been meaningful advances over the past several years. And it’s not inconceivable that much bigger breakthroughs are on the horizon. Instead of merely transforming work, technology might begin to eliminate it. Instead of making it possible to create more wealth with less labor, automation might make it possible to create more wealth without labor.