By Jean-Claude Bastos de Morais, Innovation Influencer and Founder, African Innovation Foundation
Society has been moving ever-closer towards automation for decades and it is a generally accepted reality that robots are of great benefit to mankind. Yet as robots become more complex and effective, with an ability to think for themselves, learn and carry out knowledge-based tasks, society must work out how to find employment for the millions who are set to lose their jobs. Governments need to replace lost taxes arising from the loss of human jobs.
The fact of the matter is robots are big business and they are here to stay. The speed of robotic evolution can be seen in the numbers – a 15% increase in global shipments of robots in 2015 worth $46 billion. A February 2017 Fortune.com article cites data that suggests global spending on robots will reach $135 billion by 2019 – which includes robot software and robotic services that cover regular human interface jobs.
Given this reality, it’s only natural to conclude that robots ought to be taxed for the jobs they take from humans and for the resulting void human taxpayers create.
The Maths and Morals of Robot Tax
As uncomfortable as it may be to impose taxes on the very people whose ideas and innovations are enriching our world, simple maths dictates that we have little choice. Ordinary people on low incomes have had to pay their taxes for millennia – which is where the concept of morals comes in to play. If millions of low paid humans have paid their taxes for decades now see their careers wiped out, the companies responsible have a moral duty to account for these losses in some shape or form. So why not robot tax? After all, robots reduce overheads, improve bottom lines and increase profits.
Advocates for robotic automation routinely point to the fact that, for the most part, robots cannot service or program themselves - yet. In theory, this should create new, high-skilled jobs for technicians, programmers, and other newly essential roles. But until we have proper frameworks in place to ensure that robot taxes get ploughed back into up-skilling humans, whether its retraining current labour forces or moulding future generations with intuitive innovation skills, human jobs will continue to be at stake.
Robot Tax: The Death of Innovation?
Taxing businesses that benefit financially from robots is a relatively straightforward and fair way to proceed, but policy makers must tread carefully to ensure innovators are protected, particularly in the developing world. One way could be to ensure that companies deploying robotics, especially young start-ups, be exempt from paying taxes until their development costs have been met and their business is fully operational and profitable. As businesses grow, robot taxes could be structured so that they mirror the negative impact on jobs.
Naturally, there are some parties who believe that such an imposition would act as a disincentive to innovators, stunt creativity and hold back technological progress. But I don’t believe this to be the case. In fact, it’s this type of thinking that is more likely to hinder innovation rather than the advent of robot tax. Instead of succumbing to such limiting notions, why not look at the opportunities that might arise?
The introduction of robot tax would lead to increased competitiveness and opportunity. For young start-ups in particular, a situation like this could be seen as an incentive to raise the bars of creativity and shape new dynamics in business culture. It could open the doors to news ways of collaboration, turning competition into opportunity. So no, robot text will not kill innovation, it will fuel it.
Robots versus Humans: The Case of Africa
It might seem counterintuitive to discuss robotics in the context of high youth unemployment and pervasive poverty in Africa. But it does matter. Many developing regions like Africa rely on taxes to build vital infrastructure and help create jobs for humans who are already underemployed. Accordingly to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), robots now threaten up to two thirds of developing country jobs.
Robotics will play an increasing role in Africa and Africans will play an increasing role in robotics. Having embraced the digital revolution, local innovators are using robotics to open up new opportunities and access new possibilities to manufacture on a much larger scale. But as the world’s fastest growing region with the world’s youngest population, Africa cannot afford to simply skip humans in favour of robots without preparing future generations.
Already, organizations like the African Robotics Network (AFRON) are actively promoting efforts to enhance robotics-related education, research, and industry on the continent. It is only logical that African nations should turn to education, particularly STEM education, as a way to understand and prepare for the robotic workforce of tomorrow. There is some headway being made, for instance, Project 10,000 Kids, a Nigerian initiative that promotes computational thinking by combining mathematics, logic, and algorithms and that teaches children to think about the world in new ways and to solve problems innovatively. But there is so much more to be done in this space.
Like elsewhere, Africa too stands to benefit from robot tax to prevent the rising inequalities. But it must be careful that these taxes are not punitive but instead framed in ways that encourage innovations that deliver solutions to Africa-specific challenges – automation in agriculture or healthcare for example. Africa should tax its robotic workforce and these earnings must be spent on training the next generation of creative minds who go on to not only create new technologies (robotic and non-robotic) but create wealth and sustainable jobs.