Bill Gates recently made the news with a suggestion no one expected: tax robots that take our jobs.
The idea's pretty simple. Because automation is going to replace jobs at a disruptive rate we're going to need to retrain workers so they can work in sectors like teaching, where humans are still very much needed. He sees it as the government’s responsibility to do that – but of course, they’ll need the money to pay for it.
How do you get the money? Tax the robots. By taxing companies using robots at a similar level as they would be taxed for employing the people the robots replaced, you not only make companies think twice about using them, but also give the government purse a bit more time to get used to the changes.
But innovation is a good thing, right?
For some economists, this is a ridiculous idea. Since the industrial revolution in the 1700s technology has been making our work easier and our societies richer. In the short term, this has led to people losing their jobs, but in the long run, technology has had a positive impact. Discouraging people from using and developing robots just discourages innovation, and innovation creates jobs.
The problem is, the technology being developed today is presenting a challenge unlike any it’s presented us with so far. Until now, robots have only been able to do manual, repetitive work – replacing jobs like factory lines. Now, they might be able to do the thinking for us too.
Meet Watson: IBM's new super-smart computer
Watson can read and understand Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, come up with a recipe for your dinner, and advise you on what clothes to buy based on what it knows about your taste and budget.
So far, so helpful. And not just for the day-to-day stuff – Watson could analyze every bit of data that exists in the healthcare sector and can advise you on the best treatment given your family history and symptoms. Watson also learns in real time; if you aren’t happy with its advice or it gets something wrong, it will learn from it.
Suddenly, the one USP we had over robots – the ability to think about, process, and learn from information – doesn’t seem like so much of a USP anymore.
So we need to think creatively
Watson is just one example of artificial intelligence. For businesses, machines like Watson are a win-win: lower costs and almost instant expertise in whatever area you need it. Why employ a lowly human to think when a machine can do it better?
This doesn’t mean that there won’t be any jobs left to do. In fact, since 2001 technology has created more jobs than it has destroyed. But within the next two decades 59% of wholesale and retail jobs, 74% of transport and storage jobs and 28% of health and social workers are likely to be replaced by automation.
Humans have got a lot of experience with technological changes and we can be pretty confident that we’ll figure things out in the long run. But in the short term automation will create very real problems for the job market. With the pace of technological development increasing we need to start thinking of creative solutions, pretty quickly. Maybe Bill Gates was on to something after all.