Humans should move toward taxing robots

Source:Global Times Published: 2018/1/1 22:18:39

Illustration: Luo Xuan/GT

Since at least 2013, China's industrial robots have had the highest utilization rate in the world.

The density of manufacturing robots in the world increased by 32 percent between 2010 and 2015, a pace which might well be described as "breakneck," while in China density rose by 230 percent, leaving the rest of the world far behind.

Based on this reality, we must ponder what effects all these robots will have on society and the economy. Robots are not just for fashion - they serve real needs.

The expansion of robots is an irresistible fact of economic law. Growth of the working-age population in China is slowing, while the labor demands of high-speed economic growth are still growing. The result: a shortage of labor and wages rising faster than productivity. In this scenario, it is inevitable that human workers will be replaced by machines.

Meanwhile, the law of technological change can never be broken. For example, if you read an article saying that a robot may create a breakthrough in one area, but technical difficulties remain, a few days later, you discover that a new robot has already been developed. The speed of robot development determines the speed of technological change, and the replacement of human workers will be unprecedented.

This combination of economic and technological pressure requires us to face the new situation, whether we like it or not.

In the very beginning when the process of machines replacing humans began, progress was nothing remarkable. For humans, the use of machines was unquestionably a good, profitable thing to do. Later, when machines had almost ubiquitously replaced our skills, they could be called robots. Robots today are no longer just complex machines, but have started to take on human characteristics, like cognitive competence, brain processing and storage, information extraction, judgement and learning skills.

At present, robots are not just a substitute for migrant workers, but they can do almost all of the jobs we can do. Sooner or later we will see robots with non-cognitive abilities, emotional intelligence, and even making decisions based on philosophical concepts and fuzzy mathematics. In the future, robots will probably do everything that we can do now and it will no longer make sense to call them "machines."

There is a lot of unnecessary debate going on at the moment, which we might as well give up. In the past, we were constantly wondering whether the effects of robots on employment were real and how harmful they may be. This discussion seems frivolous today, just as our current hand-wringing will seem frivolous in a few years. The impact of robots on us is inevitable, even if it is slightly unpredictable. What we should figure out is where and among whom the robots will first spread their influence most deeply, and try to figure out how to deal with it, not how to stop it. Resistance is futile.

It is human capital that makes us humans special, and it is through our humanity that we should deal with robots. The key question is what specific kind of human capital we need. Today, with robots involved, the evolution of technology is faster than ever and our occupations are constantly changing.

Some occupations don't have long to live. How long will we continue to send our fellow humans underground to mine coal and diamonds, or have people perched at the front of bullet trains, simply overseeing the complex programming which actually drives the locomotive? This trend will become even more evident in the future.

If this really is our future, what should we then teach our children? If dragons were alive today, we would teach them the skills needed to slaughter dragons. But if dragons suddenly became extinct, would several years acquiring dragon-slaying skills be considered time well spent?

As far as I am concerned, we should cultivate both the cognitive and non-cognitive abilities of our teenagers. Cognitive ability is obtained from basic education, not from technical or vocational education. Non-cognitive abilities stem from even more basic education, before the age of three. Our education should form a chain and be stretched out as early as possible. Only in this way can we compete with the machines. The extension of time spent in education is also necessary if we are to meet the challenges of the future.

It is not entirely fantastical to suppose that under the rule of the robots, humans would be forced to beg for food since they don't have any jobs to do any more. This is not a joke. It is highly likely that if we are not proactive, we may well be begging from robots before too long.

However, as we invented the robots, if we are smart enough, we can change begging from robots into taxing them.

There is a class of economic behavior that cannot solve its own externalities, and the development of the robot is such an economic act. It brings the greatest externality of all, so we have to levy a tax on it and use it to support inclusive, basic protection for everyone.

China has been enjoying the fastest robot growth rate ever seen and will soon be subject to the greatest impact of robots. Therefore, China should take proactive precautions and provide corresponding policy options. At the same time, economists should call for the development of new economic theories to deal with whatever robots may bring to bear on human society, before it is too late.

This article was compiled based on a speech by Cai Fang, vice president of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, at the CAIJING Annual Conference in November.

Posted in: INSIDER'S EYE

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