ROMNEY WORDSWORTH – For those of you who missed my prior columns on the subject of the Robopocylpse, it refers to very troubling trend lines across the globe which are converging in a perfect storm: robotics, artificial intelligence, government mandates on labor costs, and global recession all portend a massive and unprecedented dislocation of human workers as robots take more and more jobs. It is closer than you think. The great corporate-government push for self-driving cars, for instance, will in about 5 years eliminate all driver jobs—tractor trailers, buses, cabs, delivery, Uber, forklifts, and construction vehicles. Similar advances are being made with self flying planes and self-sailing tanker ships. It is a very long list of jobs, and they are all about to be lost to human workers virtually overnight. Ditto for all fields involving manual labor and repetitive tasks. The field of robotics has already conquered one big hurdle, the ability to build a humanoid robot that can walk and move like a human on two legs. Boston Dynamics, under contract with DARPA, has a whole family of robots, two and four legged. When Artificial Intelligence advances to a Turing Test level, robots and androids that can do nearly any manual labor or service job will be upon us.
What then happens to a global, unemployable human population? Europe is already setting down a two pronged approach. The first is the proposal to provide citizens with a “Basic Minimum Wage”, a wage that will be paid to every citizen by the government regardless of whatever employment they might have. Bernie Sanders proposed the same thing for America. This was recently the subject of a referendum vote in Switzerland. It was voted down. The problem with a Basic Minimum Wage is that it is an atrociously expensive and unsustainable form of social welfare payment. There simply isn’t the kind of wealthy tax base to support such a scheme.
Here is where the European Parliament comes in. A draft motion dated May 31st of this year proposes to classify every robot in the EU as an “Electronic Citizen”. Further, the EU proposal would then have each such “Electronic Citizen” be obligated to pay existing social insurance taxes. This could potentially create the sort of wealth transfer from the employed automatons to the unemployed human masses that could fund the Basic Minimum Wage scheme.
But there are a lot of problems to be sorted out first. Such as the fact that social insurance taxes are levied as a percentage of a citizen’s wage. But robots aren’t paid wages, so how do you calculate a social insurance payment?
Another problem is tax jurisdiction competition. If Europe or America tries to put a payroll tax on robots, the owners of those robots will simply move their factories to another country that doesn’t levy such tax burdens. On the other hand, payroll taxes are cheaper for robot factory owners to pay than an actual payroll to humans. Robots, further, never take vacations, get pregnant, or need things like healthcare or pensions.
This is the problem for humanity having to compete with robots: Robots are just better in every way. They don’t demand payroll nor benefits, and are therefore much cheaper than humans over the long term. The owner of a fast food franchise further never has to worry about a robot picking its nose in front of the customers, nor worry about the robot robbing the till or filching French fries. Robots don’t require a Human Resources Department, and they never engage in sexual harassment in the workplace.
The EU proposal is not without opposition. Germany’s influential VDMA, or Verband Deutscher Maschinen and Anlagenbau (German Machine and Manufacturing Association), which represents companies such as automation giant Siemens and robot maker Kuka, says the proposal is too complicated and premature. Patrick Schwarzkopf, managing director of the VDMA’s robotic and automation department, said: “That we would create a legal framework with electronic persons – that’s something that could happen in 50 years but not in 10 years.”
“We think it would be very bureaucratic and would stunt the development of robotics,” Schwarzkopf told reporters at the Automatica Robotics trade fair in Munich, while acknowledging that a legal framework for self-driving cars would be needed soon.
Millions of high school seniors just graduated across the country. They face a daunting career path ahead of them, and many are not predicted to do as well as their parents. In the near future humanity may be divided into two groups: A tiny elite who own most of the wealth producing robots, and a vast mass of unemployed who are dependent on a government handout. The coming Robopocalypse makes their prospects for the future even more grim than most realize.