Amazon, Uber, and Bill Gates’s Robot Tax: An Automation Snapshot

As we gear up for Robo Madness 2017: A.I. Gets Real, our annual robotics and artificial intelligence conference at Google’s offices in Kendall Square, let’s connect a few dots around the topic of automation.

In just the past day or two:

—Uber has started testing self-driving cars in Tempe, AZ, after having its tests banned in San Francisco in December. (Of course, Uber has got bigger problems at the moment.)

—UPS tested a rudimentary form of drone delivery in Lithia, FL. A drone carrying a package took off from the roof of a UPS truck, dropped the package at a destination, and returned to the truck.

—Amazon is planning to sell beer and wine at its “Go” convenience store in Seattle, which will automatically bill customers on their way out (no cashiers). A human worker will be needed to check IDs, though.

The impact of automation on jobs and society is an increasingly hot topic, with debates going on about how and when human workers will be displaced by robots and A.I. systems.

Bill Gates said in a recent interview with Quartz that governments should tax companies’ use of automation technologies, to mitigate the impact of job losses. “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,” Gates said. “If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level.”

Gates’s idea is that robot taxes can be put towards things like education, elder care, and other societal needs. But government, not businesses, would need to make that happen, he said. And that’s what scares me.

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