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Just because a worker isn’t technically “alive” doesn’t mean it can make money for nothing, according to Bill Gates.
In a recent interview with Quartz editor-in-chief Kevin Delaney, the billionaire philanthropist explained that robot labor should get taxed just like human labor – primarily as a way to maintain funding for society’s many social services.
“You can’t just give up that income tax,” Gates said.
Economists and future-minded techies alike, Gates included, have been discussing the looming threat of robotic automation for several years now. An Oxford report from 2013 found robots could displace up to 50% of jobs between 2023 and 2033. And a 2015 McKinsey report concluded that today’s technology could replace 45% of jobs right now.
The bulk of those lost jobs will likely come, at least initially, in telemarketing, tax preparation, and many retail service jobs. In 2016, a PwC report found drones could replace $126 billion worth of labor in infrastructure and agriculture.
If and when that happens, Gates doesn’t believe the manufacturers of those robots should be able to reap the profits generated by the automated labor without paying some sort of tax. The system would be similar to how the government takes a portion of people’s wages to support social programs, such as healthcare, infrastructure, and law enforcement.
Gates sees a robot tax as contributing to a portion of those programs whose workforces are in short supply. He points to the examples of teaching, elder care, and helping kids with special needs. With the proper training and fulfillment, people who lose their jobs to robots could fill those kinds of roles and have their salaries paid for by the tax.
At which point, Gates says, “you’re net ahead.”
More extreme solutions to robot automation include negative income tax – a system in which the government pays citizens based on their income, not the other way around – and universal basic income, where people receive a set amount of money each month just for being alive.
Gates has criticized simply giving people money based on the idea that one-time transfers are fleeting; however, he has not addressed the premise of guaranteed recurring payments over long periods of time.