Labor warns on 'Robot Tax' if AI questions are ignored
Originally posted by Paul Smith @ afr.com
Shadow Minister for the Digital Economy Ed Husic has warned future governments will need to consider dramatic measures like taxing artificially intelligent bots to help fund basic incomes for citizens, if policy makers and business leaders cannot properly address solutions to maintain employment and living standards in the automation era.
Speaking at an Automation Summit in Sydney hosted by Sydney-based AI and robotic process automation services firm Mindfields, Mr Husic spoke at length about the need for government to collaborate better with business to address the issues facing both organisations and workers as more intelligent technology changes the nature of jobs required.
He was asked about suggestions from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates that organisations replacing human workers with bots should face a "robot tax", to help replace the income tax revenue lost and keep more humans in work, and warned that it would become necessary if more preferable positive measures were not implemented.
The idea of a robot tax has been supplemented by calls from business heavyweights like Richard Branson, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg for governments to consider implementing a system of cash handouts or universal basic income (UBI) to arrest the slide of those left jobless by automation into poverty.
Mr Husic said it would be much better for all stakeholders to avoid the necessity of new taxes and forms of welfare, and said a Labor government would look to incentivise organisations to put proper programs in place for developing the new skills required.
He said it would also use an inquiry into the future of post-school education in Australia, spearheaded by education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek, to develop a more dynamic approach to how Australians acquire and refresh skills.
" There are two features of the debate around automation that reflect the idea of giving up all hope for finding a positive and planned approach, and that is to reach for these levers. One is a robot tax and the other is UBI," Mr Husic said.
"We will [need to do it] if unemployment goes through the roof and we haven't prepared for what's coming, but we have one of the most targeted welfare systems on the planet and where we are actively trying to reconsider things like how we lift New Start, this is not an easy area to deal with. "
Mr Husic said he hoped talk of a robot tax would help focus the minds of industry and the government on seriously addressing the issue of automation and innovation as it pertained to the future of work.
He said he had welcomed the moves by former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull to embrace an innovation agenda at the start of his term of office, but had been frustrated by the government's subsequent retreat from discussing any related topics.
"A prime minister cannot remain focused on one issue, so you need to have other people who can pick up the flag and move forward ... Wyatt Roy and I were working together to try and advance this agenda and his election seat loss had an impact on their side in terms of having nobody with the energy to drive this tricky agenda," Mr Husic said.
"Once they dropped it, it became obvious that they couldn't reconcile the level of enthusiasm from people at the leading edge of technology, versus those who may be impacted by that same technology, but it is incumbent within parliamentary ranks to see what is going on, interpret it, explain it and build support for what is happening.
"Just like we didn't shy away from the economic reforms that were required in the 80s and 90s, we can't do the same here."
Mr Husic said he had seen numerous examples of Australian businesses thinking deeply about workforce changes, and believed it was important for the Australian population to be exposed to informed discussion about the benefits businesses had to seek through automation, rather than allowing it to be viewed as an impending evil.
On Monday stats from US-based science and technology policy think tank the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation found that Australia is trailing south-east Asia, the United States and most of Europe in robot adoption. The report examined 27 nations and found that, controlling for wage levels, Australia ranks 24th overall in its share of robots.
"Robots are key to boosting productivity and improving living standards, but there is a dangerous misperception that they will lead to mass unemployment," said ITIF president Rob Atkinson, author of the report.
"Policymakers shouldn't let fear of job losses discourage robot adoption. The evidence is clear: using robots makes economies more competitive, which helps them grow and create jobs."
Citing Australian Computer Society figures, which show Australian businesses are suffering through a shortage of digital skills of at least 100,000, while there were 600,000 Australians unemployed, Mr Husic suggested there was more work to be done on linking ongoing education initiatives to in-demand skills.
"One thing many people aren't aware of is that Australia has as many AI researchers as France, so it is not like we don't have the brains, but we are doing a lot of work that needs to be joined up," he said.
"I am not saying you can easily transfer that 100,000 over to the digital area, but we need to work on what we are doing to create the big pool on one side that cannot be used to address a shortage on the other side. "
Optus research into the challenges businesses face in the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution was also presented at the Mindfields summit, and managing director of Optus Business John Paitaridis said he was optimistic that humans would successfully adapt to the AI era as they had in the first three industrial revolutions.
A positive future vision
"Creating the smart workforce of the future requires the long-term cooperation of industry, government and academia. This is vital to Australia's global competitiveness," Mr Paitaridis said.
"We know digitalisation is disrupting industries but it is also creating growth opportunities. If companies want to thrive, not just survive, we need the skillsets that are going to not only ride the wave of change but create it. Building the capabilities to do that must start now. It's time to step up."
Mindfields executive chairman Mohit Sharma said he believed any move to introduce robot taxes would prove counter-productive and restrict business investment in much-needed efficiency initiatives.
He said government should provide stimulus to promote automation instead of taxing it, as there would be a net increase in taxation due to the increase in profitability of the organisations adopting and embracing the technology.
"This net gain in taxation is bigger than any loss on tax on employment salary due to automation," Mr Sharma said.
"The main objective of automation is to reallocate humans from mundane jobs to more value-added jobs. Currently the US, which is the biggest adopter of automation, is having the lowest unemployment in its history. This proves that automation will lead to better utilisation of a scarce human workforce."