Guest blog: PBSI editor asks – Should robots be taxed?

Author : Alistair Hookway | Editor | PBSI

05 February 2019

Alistair Hookway, Editor, PBSI

A recent article by Stephen Hayes from Beckhoff Automation raised some interesting questions about the future of automation and robotics. One particular point he raises is the idea of a robot tax...

This guest blog first appeared in the February 2019 issue of PBSI and on the PBSI website.

An article this week written by Stephen Hayes from Beckhoff Automation raised some interesting questions about the future of automation and robotics. One particular point Stephen raises is the idea of a robot tax.

Currently, due to the UK's lacklustre uptake of automation in general, robotics attracts significant tax benefits. However, robots don't have any legal fiscal capacity, as Stephen says, and thus don't pay tax, even when replacing a human worker.

industrial robots

This isn't to say that claims of robots stealing jobs have any truth to them, but it is still a point worth considering if further in the future the number of robots increases and the number of working humans decreases. The government would still be in need of funding vital services. One way it could do that is by taxing robots. Our national insurance and income taxes are key to funding essential services. If humans were to gradually be replaced and no longer work – and therefore no longer pay these taxes – a universal basic income would be needed and alternative taxes would be required. Stephen suggests that the core question is how should businesses contribute to the provision of a universal basic income.

Despite being a rhetorical question, it is still worth considering as the number of robots increases across the world. Last year, the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) announced that robot sales and robot density were both rising globally. However, in the IFR's findings for 2017, the UK was ranked 22nd with a robot density of 72 robots per 10,000 employees compared to the worldwide average of 74 robots. This is a worrying statistic for the UK and as a result there has been a continued push for increased automation from industry and government.

robots job interview

As many in industry will know, increasing automation has many advantages and often leads to job creation rather than job stealing. For the time being, a robot tax would simply stifle investment in automation and companies would be less willing to innovate.

The question is will we ever reach a point where robots do the majority of the work in society and a universal basic income is needed? And if so, would a robot tax be the best solution to funding services and ensuring everyone has an income? To eventually find the answers to these questions, automation must continue to be embraced in the UK and the 'job-stealing' rhetoric needs to be disproved in order to ease the fears that some may have about embracing technology.

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