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Why Bill Gates is partially correct about ‘robot tax’

Ehtesham Shahid

Published: Updated:

“In the artificial intelligence revolution (AI) over the next 15 years, 45 percent of the jobs we know are going to disappear”. Joseph Aoun, President of Northeastern University, delivered this rather stark warning at the World Government Summit in Dubai earlier this month.

Presenting the “Future Model of Higher Education” during the summit, the President of Northeastern University, argued that it is not just muscle jobs that are on the firing line. “Many white collar jobs that we know, involving financial analysis, accounting etc. are bound to disappear”, he said.

Aoun hastened to add though that other jobs are indeed being created at the same time but the level of awareness regarding them is not high and that the system of higher education is struggling to cope up with these transitions.

In other words, if we do not see the emerging storm, we might soon be engulfed by it. More importantly, a degree or two no longer seems to guarantee a career, leave alone setting people for life as. In the words of Aoun, “the challenge is to prepare students for an ever-changing life”.

On the flip side, artificial intelligence can also help reduce some of the base-level functions in our surroundings. From construction to leisure to food production, every operation has a certain number of underlings, trainees, support staff – jobs that require few skills.

Unless basic needs of all human beings are fulfilled, no amount of taxation, on robots or otherwise, will make any difference

Ehtesham Shahid

In other words, AI can also eradicate “donkey” work that we often detest. It is already developing applications across industries and, if experts are to be believed, it is on way to reshaping the way we restructure our approach to labor and workforce.

An Accenture report says that automation, machine learning and adaptive intelligence are becoming part of the finance team at lightning speed. In fact, thanks to them, 30-50 percent of traditional shared services roles, including in finance, will disappear over the next five years.

‘Robot tax’

This is where the much talked about Bill Gates “robot tax” becomes relevant. Microsoft’s co-founder recently suggested that robots should be taxed just like human workers, based on the value of their work.

While this may be an idea worth considering, it surely doesn’t end the problem. It is more important to focus on what you do with the money generated through taxation. If those funds do not end up where they should be, then no amount of taxation is going to change the circumstances the poor and the needy find themselves in.

Unequal distribution of wealth has been the story of our civilization for ages and will continue to remain until we realize its ill effects on the long term.

One school of thought has it that robots taking more jobs will give human beings more freedom to choose what we really intend to do with our lives. Well, even if that were to be true, the fact remains that those on the fringe of tax benefits will continue to struggle to eke out a living and wouldn’t be driven by finer tastes of life.

The focus should hence be on humans so that we build artificial intelligence the way we want it to work and so that it stays well within our realm of control. Ironically, it is not the machine intelligence but the human apathy that poses the challenge.

Northeastern University’s Joseph Aoun hit the bull’s eye when he said that our goal should be to make us robot-proof. “What makes us robot-proof is the ability to create new concepts and ideas, being entrepreneurial, and demonstrating cultural agility”.

These cognitive capacities are indeed essential and our formal higher education may not have focused on them. A dichotomy, in his words, exists between learning to live and learning to earn a living.

Unless we learn this lesson in life, and unless basic needs of all human beings are fulfilled, no amount of taxation, on robots or otherwise, will make any difference.
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Ehtesham Shahid is Managing Editor at Al Arabiya English. For close to two decades he has worked as editor, correspondent, and business writer for leading publications, news wires and research organizations in India and the Gulf region. He loves to occasionally dabble with teaching and is collecting material for a book on unique tales of rural conflict and transformation from around the world. His twitter handle is @e2sham.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.