Thursday, 29 March 2018 08:44

Taxing the Bots?

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This month I received an unsolicited e-mail press release from the University of Surrey in the U.K. The press release was promoting an event at the University in which a professor will discuss artificial intelligence (AI) and the challenges AI presents to current law.  Lawyers at the University of Surrey are proposing the creation of a “robot tax” that taxes the use of robotic labor the same way governments collect taxes from human workers. They argue that without such a law, companies are essentially encouraged to automate, which will reduce tax revenues and reduce the number of people gainfully employed.

According to the lawyers, automation presents a clear and present danger to jobs and to tax revenues and they claim that in 2017 none other than Microsoft founder Bill Gates endorsed the idea of a tax on automation.

 

At first glance, I thought this was just another example of how things tend to get screwed up once the lawyers get involved. I thought the idea of taxing bots was a bit of a stretch, especially since bots in the contact center are designed primarily to enhance the customer and agent experience, not to replace a job.

 

Then I came across a story that gave me pause to reconsider. The role of bots is evolving as fast as new roles for robotic assistants and processes can be dreamed up. The story that stopped me in my tracks ran in the March 7, 2018, USA Today insert in the Arizona Republic newspaper. The story was entitled, “Sizzling Circuitry! Robocook Takes Over the Grill.”

 

The story detailed how a California restaurant chain called Caliburger had just implemented a robot that was programmed to flip hamburgers all day long. Named Flippy, the robot takes burger patties off of a tray, places them on the griddle, monitors their temperature, flips them, then takes them off the griddle to serve. Flippy can flip as many as 2,000 patties a day.

 

The reason the Flippy story made me reconsider the validity of a bot tax is the simple fact that, probably like many of you, my first job was flipping burgers. Not counting my paper route and lawn-mowing business that started at age 12, when I reached age 15 ½ I got my parents to sign a consent form to let me work and I got my first “real” job at the Red Barn restaurant in Redwood City, California. That job? Flipping burgers.

 

I didn’t learn any particularly useful job skills flipping burgers, but I learned very useful life skills like how to show up for work on time, how to give and follow directions, how to work with others and how to earn a paycheck. That’s also when I started “donating” my wages to the government in terms of taxes and social security contributions.

 

According to McKinsey Global Institute, more than half of all tasks associated with fast-food restaurants are poised to be automated. That represents a lot of wage tax revenues that will disappear, not to mention entry-level jobs that serve to bring young people and others into the workforce.

 

So, maybe the idea of taxing bots isn’t that crazy after all. It’s not inconceivable that in the future, those same bots helping the agent do a better job at the desktop may also find themselves being chased by the IRS every April 15th.

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