Should your plastic pal pay taxes?

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US founding father Benjamin Franklin said there were only two things certain in life: death and taxes. But he could never have dreamed, before his death in 1790, that his quotation would apply to robots. Bill Gates said, in a recent interview with Quartz, that robots should pay taxes.

The Microsoft founder and philanthropist made the assertion in a bid to recoup cash into government coffers as employers swap a flesh and blood workforce for a mechanised one.

“You cross the threshold of job replacement of certain activities all sort of at once,” Gates said, as European Union (EU) legislators rejected the idea.

“Certainly, there will be taxes that relate to automation,” Gates pushed back.

“Right now, the human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory, that income is taxed and you get income tax, social security tax, all those things. If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level.”

Gates suggested governments tax the profits generated by labour-saving robots.

“Some of it can come directly in some type of robot tax. I don’t think the robot companies are going to be outraged that there might be a tax… at a time when people are saying that the arrival of that robot is a net loss because of displacement, you ought to be willing to raise the tax level and even slow down the speed of that adoption somewhat…

“You cross the threshold of job-replacement of certain activities all sort of at once. So, you know, warehouse work, driving, room clean up, there’s quite a few things that are meaningful job categories that, certainly in the next 20 years, being thoughtful about that extra supply is a net benefit. It’s important to have the policies to go with that.”

Gates said it would be really bad if people had more fear about innovation than enthusiasm.

“That means they won’t shape it for the positive things it can do. And, you know, taxation is certainly a better way to handle it than just banning some elements of it… absolutely government’s got a big role to play there.

“So, there is nothing new under the sun,” wrote the author of Ecclesiastes. The same argument could have been applied to Microsoft from 1981 when it launched the first version of Microsoft Word.

In the 26 years since the software giant has slowly done away with the office secretary for many small to medium sized businesses.

If robots are taxed, users of Microsoft Word should be too, beyond the standard goods and services tax.

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David Hallett

David Hallett is a director of Hamilton software specialist Company-X, design house E9 and chief nerd at Waikato Need A Nerd.

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