The Tech Take

Should robots be taxed?

A new report urges against the taxation of robots, with the warning that any such policy would stifle innovation — an oft-used argument against taxation of most tech-related capital goods. However, the rise of robots has not had the clear-cut, expected results the world might have hoped for, complicating the tax question.

The report, issued by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, is a direct rebuttal of one of the fundamental arguments for taxing robotics: Robots will eliminate human jobs, leading to a decline in income tax and an increase in dependents on the state, which needs to be funded somehow. The report states these arguments are flawed and not supported by history. This may be true, but it’s also true that the trickle-down theory of tax breaks leading to productivity and innovation has not been supported by history, either.

Robot
Attendees watch SoftBank Group Corp.'s Pepper humanoid robot on the second day of Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, Spain, on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. A theme this year at the industry's annual get-together, which runs through March 2, is the Internet of Things. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Robert D. Atkinson, president of the ITIF and author of the report, stated, “We need to increase productivity in order to increase wages and spur economic growth. The most important way to do this is by encouraging the adoption of new machinery and equipment. Taxing new equipment, like robots, would reduce the incentive for companies to make such investments. Instead, an effective growth and competitiveness policy would lower prices for equipment, machinery and software.”

But while Atkinson may be expected to fall on this side of the argument, due to his interest in technological innovation, the king of software himself had something different to say just a couple of years ago: In 2017, Bill Gates surprised many in an interview with Quartz, saying a robot tax would help fund occupations that need a human touch, such as elder and child care.

“You ought to be willing to raise the tax level and even slow down the speed [of automation],” he said in the interview. It’s important to properly manage the displacement of humans by robots, he added. This displacement needs to be managed both for the wellbeing of workers as they lose jobs and income, but also for the wellbeing of the government pocketbook. According to The New York Times, income taxes account for half of the $3 trillion collected every year by the Internal Revenue Service; payroll taxes account for another third.

To put how quickly that IRS revenue could shrink in perspective, consider the example of the robocall industry in the United States. An often-cited 2013 Oxford University study placed telemarketers at the top of the list of jobs likely to be replaced by automation. This prediction has come true, and in fact, has become a crisis in America: There were 30.5 billion robocalls made in 2017, and last year, that increased a whopping 56.8 percent to 47.8 billion, according to software company YouMail. The job outlook for telemarketers has been negative since 2004, with vacancies declining by 29.63 percent until 2018, when the outlook saw a small uptick.

But in addition to job decline, the artificially intelligent robots making these calls are convincing enough to be able to fool the average person that they’re speaking to a real human being, as comedian and social commentator John Oliver demonstrated on a recent episode of “Last Week Tonight.” Traditionally, opening up channels to make manufacturing, innovation, transport and trade easier has had the simultaneous effect of facilitating misuse of the system. A significant percentage of these billions of robocalls are fraudsters attempting to get people to sign up for misleading loan forgiveness programs, for example, or simply to coax people to give out their social security numbers.

On the other hand, also topping the 2013 list of jobs likely to be automated away were tax preparers. While the market has robust DIY tax preparation software platforms available today, like Intuit’s TurboTax, H&R Block Tax Software, and TaxAct, tax preparers still have more than enough work to keep them busy. Artificial intelligence software is still not advanced enough to replace humans when it comes to even mildly complex tax preparation questions. To that end, tax software companies have experimented with providing access to real human tax preparers on an at-will basis through their platforms.

The accounting industry has made a point, aided by groups such as the American Institute of CPAs and the Information Technology Association, to shift the profession to keep pace with technological advancements, making accountants as professionals just as valuable as they have always been.

We are at a stage now that allows certain very simple tasks to be automated, like phone calls. But more complex jobs, like tax preparation, still need the human touch, similar to how eldercare and childcare need it. Robots can process a huge amount of data in seconds, which is very helpful to accounting tasks like auditing, but they cannot as yet apply discretion and provide nuanced advice, which is what accountants and auditors are expected to be able to do. Similarly, they cannot yet replicate the literal human touch needed in professions like nursing, which require dexterity at a level robots cannot yet achieve.

But it’s not inconceivable that some day, robots will indeed be advanced enough to finally take over those jobs deemed “most susceptible to automation,” which make up a full 51 percent of activities in the U.S. economy, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. This reality can only be managed if the development of automation, AI and robotics is measured and done carefully. Responsible innovation doesn’t simply mean slow innovation — it also means ethical innovation, with some check against robotics that is easily used to commit fraud and deception, as in the robocall industry.

One way to force innovators into careful consideration is taxation. Taxing the robots, so to speak, would help ensure that the growth of innovation in robotics doesn’t outpace the government and economy’s ability to keep up with the loss of jobs, and the loss of income taxes.