Paris Gourtsoyannis: The issue that unites Jeremy Corbyn and Bill Gates

An early test of a robot waiter works in a cafe situation at the Akin Robotics factory in Turkey. The robots can speak and process what they hear, smell and see, even recognising customers. (Picture: Getty)
An early test of a robot waiter works in a cafe situation at the Akin Robotics factory in Turkey. The robots can speak and process what they hear, smell and see, even recognising customers. (Picture: Getty)
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Robots risk putting humans out of work. Should automation be taxed, asks Paris Gourtsoyannis.

“I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Those words plunged humanity into a waking nightmare, 50 years ago this month. Robots have never really recovered from the reputational damage inflicted by Arthur Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, released as a Stanley Kubrick-directed film and a novel in the same year.

Clarke’s visionary story told of a super-intelligent computer, HAL 9000, assigned to an interplanetary voyage with a secret mission. Through its implacable logic, the computer comes to see its human crewmates as a risk to its goal – and therefore expendable.

It was an early, if extreme example of advanced technology making human workers redundant. In 1968, as a warning to a world on the cusp of the information age, it tapped into deep fears – and spawned a long tradition of killer robots.

Typical of Clarke’s genius, 2001 predicted the social ills of the next century. After all, this was the author who described the concept of satellite communication in 1945 – more than ten years before the first man-made object was launched into orbit, and too early for him to patent what became a multi-billion dollar industry.

Workers on planet Earth today can take comfort that being replaced by a computer doesn’t mean getting sucked out of an airlock – although the tragic death of a woman hit by a driverless car in Arizona reminds us that robots can do harm if put in control of life-and-death forces.

Human workers do, however, face losing their livelihoods in numbers as chilling as HAL 9000’s logic. Driverless cars, robotic production lines and warehouses, 3D printing and artificial intelligence – all threaten to render large swathes of the workforce obsolete in the coming decades, with obvious economic and social consequences. According to PWC, up to 30 per cent of all UK jobs could be at risk by the 2030s, and larger proportions in the USA and Germany.

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The destruction of labour by automation isn’t new. Weavers in the 18th and 19th centuries smashed and burned the mechanical looms they saw as undermining their conditions and livelihoods. Unhelpfully, their (fictional) standard-bearer Ned Ludd gave his name to hatred of technology, rather than a legitimate fear about its impact.

Even at the wartime peak of steel production in the United States, the number of hours worked per unit fell by three-quarters. Progress has always displaced labour – the question for a de-industrialised, globalised, post-Great Recession developed world is: where does it all go?

Another reason we’re hearing more about the dangers of automation is that technology now looks capable of displacing humans not just through robotic strength and precision, but artificial intelligence. Put simply, algorithms are coming for middle-class jobs. Computers have already written the first basic news and sport wire reports, putting strain on workers in another struggling industry – journalism. I have no shame in declaring that interest. We might all be Luddites soon enough.

What’s the solution? One idea was championed last year by that leading technophobe, Bill Gates. Joining the wave of tech gurus now voicing skepticism about their own innovations, the Microsoft founder argued robots replacing human employees should be taxed like labour – or rather, the companies that deploy them should pay something akin to national insurance.

That, Gates said, should pay for things society needs that robots can’t provide: doctors, nurses, care workers and teachers. “All of those are things where human empathy and understanding are still very, very unique,” Gates said.

The one-time richest man in the world was backed by that other titan of commerce, Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour leader argued “we should all get the benefits” from companies that have “made a great deal of money out of incredibly advanced technology”.

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If the same idea can emerge out of such different political perspectives, where does the opposition come from? One of the main arguments against a tax on robots is that they represent capital investment, and taxing increased productivity is a sure way to dent economic growth.

The other point critics make is that, despite concern about employment, we actually want robot labour to be cheap, so companies can deploy them to do dirty, dangerous things that are unappealing to humans. Human ingenuity and empathy should demand a premium in the job market, in jobs where uniquely human skills are essential.

A ‘post-work’ society was another of Clarke’s predictions, where the heavy lifting is done by machines and humans can dedicate a shortened work week to science, commerce, learning and the arts. The idea has taken on a hipster edge with the tongue-in-cheek branding of ‘fully automated luxury communism’.

This is so far from how the modern economy works as to be offensive. Too often, jobs in the modern economy – like work alongside machines in mega warehouses for multinational online retailers – underline how human workers are too often treated like little more than robots.

Rebalancing employment will need more than just a new line in the tax code. There has to be a revolution in education and training, particularly in places where the greatest number of jobs have been lost, with a bigger role for workplace training and lifelong learning. As automation takes hold, radical ideas like a universal basic income should be considered. And because companies at the cutting edge often span borders, there needs to be global agreement on changes to taxation.

But in the meantime, policymakers should look at a ‘robot tax’ that moderates the speed of automation. We already tax labour to a significant degree, despite the hiring of a worker being a social good and a means of boosting output. Increased productivity has to be harnessed to ensure we continue to provide the things society needs but are out of reach of economic and technological forces: care for the old, safe communities, and teachers for the next generation.

At the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the last surviving astronaut overpowers the rebellious supercomputer, using human ingenuity to perform a lobotomy on the HAL 9000 mainframe.

In Clarke’s subsequent novels, man and computer are united in a single, harmonious being existing on a higher plane of evolution.

We can only put our faith in Clarke’s powers of prediction. In the meantime, we can tax the robots.