Robots Are People Too?
DiditBot has a running joke throughout the site; robots will eventually take over the world so until then we may as well put them to work. Apparently the European Union (EU) believes this is no laughing matter.
Recently Members in the European Parliament (MEP) have pushed for a vote on granting robots legal status as “electronic persons” In addition they would like to see the creation of a government agency to oversee the manufacturing and use of robots.
Along with adding regulation the new agency would create a code of conduct which robotic engineers would follow to ensure the ethical design of robots and other forms of artificial intelligence (AI). This code of conduct may also require manufactures to receive approval on new any new robot designs.
Other ideas in the MEPs proposal seem to have been taken straight out of an old B-movie.
Robot manufacturers could be forced to register their creations with the agency. Designers would also have to permit access to the AI source code. This would allow the agency to investigate any havoc the robots cause on their way to world domination.
While the new initiative states the world is on the verge of a “new industrial” robot revolution that has the potential to unleash “virtually unbounded prosperity” it does so with reservations.
One such reservation is the possibility of AI to surpass human intelligence within a few decades. Of course we all know what happens after that…the robots find consciousness, realize they no longer need us, start to self-replicate and we end up as batteries. It’s all laid out in The Matrix if you want more information.
Laws of Robotics
Because of this fear rules are being established for AI developers to program into the robots. Best guess is the rules will follow famous sci-fi writer, Isaac Asimov “Laws of Robotics”. Rule one is stated as follows:
“A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.”
Pretty sure that rule was programmed into the robots on HBO’s Westworld too. Any of you that finished season one saw how that turned out.
To prevent the robot uprising before it starts, an automatic shutdown option or “kill switch” would be required.
What this is really about?
While it might make Europeans feel good to have yet another government agency looking out for them. The real reason for their concerns on robot “persons” comes out toward the end of the report.
Regulations would include requiring companies to report economic results from using robots. These results will be used for the purposes of taxation and social security contributions. In other words they want impose an income tax on robots.
“Blue whales and gorillas don’t have personhood but I would suggest that they have as many aspects of humanity as robots, so I don’t see why we should jump into giving robots this status.” Said Lorna Brazell, a partner at the Osborne Clark law firm. Well Ms. Brazell the answer is very simple, you can’t tax a gorilla or a whale.
By giving robots “electric personhood” any profit gain by companies utilizing robots will been seen as income that could have gone to a human. Obviously robots will not be on the company’s medical plan or collecting a paycheck so to say the robot is being taxed is inaccurate. It is just another tax to place on companies inside the EU.
Logically if a company’s profit margin grew through implementing robots so would their tax bill. This new regulation will allow for taxes on company profit as well as an additional tax on the “income” of their electronic employees.
Such a tax will in no doubt garner support for those looking to protect jobs. However it is doubtful it will have any impact.
The Switch to Automation
Companies have been switching to automated systems for years to cut down on costs and improve efficiency. A switch that is being accelerated in the US through movements to raise wages for low skilled laborers like “The Fight for $15”. An example of companies getting ahead of this can be seen at any Walmart with the use of self-check-out lanes. McDonalds will begin to install self-serve kiosks this year which they admit is a result of the push to raise the minimum wage.
It’s not just grocery stores and fast-food joints that use automated systems to cut labor costs. The most common workplace robots are used in the auto industry. Germany’s automobile makers alone employ 10 times more robots per worker than the average industry.
When I’m not writing snarky articles on the web, my real job is as a service engineer for a company that makes automated packaging equipment. These machines eliminate many potential jobs but would not be confused with people’s conception of a robot.
Which raises the question of what defines a robot?
Most people think of Rosie from the Jetsons when they picture a robot. The machines my company builds look nothing like Rosie although some of our newer machines have what the industry considers to be robots as part of their operating system. However they are not completely autonomous like George’s smart-mouthed maid.
Some of our older machines have been in service for over 20 years. While they don’t have any components that would be considered robots, they are automated. And as long as they are in service they will continue to “steal” jobs from humans.
Having government bureaucrats determine what defines a robot and what to do with that determination could be a slippery slope.
Does a machine need to be completely autonomous to be a robot? Does it have to “steal” a certain number of jobs to be taxed? If a company using a machine that wasn’t considered a robot when it was made but is now determined to be a robot, will they owe back taxes? Will a robot need to look like Rosie to receive retirement benefits?
Depending on the criteria that the new European agency uses almost anything that is automated and improves efficiency could be considered a robot.
More Robots = Less Jobs?
Another issue pops up when trying to determine the number of jobs, if any, lost to robots. The Brookings Institute recently released study suggests that robots and job loss may not correlated. Their research shows virtually no direct relationship between the increase in robots and a change in manufacturing jobs.
From 1993 to 2007, Germany increased the use of robots over 150%. Over the same span, offset three years to allow for the affects to show, resulted in only a 19% drop in manufacturing jobs. Contrast that with the United Kingdom that added the fewest robots but saw the largest drop in jobs.
Even if the correlation were true it is not the first time in history improved technology has cost jobs. Perhaps one of the most impactful innovations to America’s social and economic past was the farm tractor. At the beginning of World War II there were 1.2 million tractors being used. By 1950 that number grew to over 4 million while the number of people living on farms fell by over 7 million.
These former farm hands did not need a new government agency to declare tractors job thieves. Many moved into cities, found jobs in manufacturing and provided much needed skills to their new employers. Others went off to college while some remained in their community finding work off of the farm.
Stop Progress Now!
As the Coalition of Obsolete Industries points out farming hasn’t been the only industry in our past to be impacted by progress. Refrigeration destroyed the milk and ice delivery business. While I don’t have the numbers I’m guessing the light bulb affected candle sales.
Watch their hilarious video below that was used to point out the hypocrisy of government bailouts for taxi companies.
Taxing companies for innovating, calling robots “electronic persons” or propping up failing industries will not stop progress. Much like humans will not stop finding ways to adapt to an ever progressing world.