Do Robots Dream of Electric Retirement Savings Accounts?

Study uses technological advancement to call for expansion of the state.


Photoagency Interpress/ZUMA Press/Newscom

A European Parliament draft report is calling for the European Union to embrace the sci-fi future of autonomous robots and artificial intelligence and all that ethical considerations that follow. Though really, partly what it's all about is worrying that automation will wreak havoc on government-run benefits systems and who will face financial liability for what might happen if sentient robots are treated like people. If Skynet tries to destroy us all, can we sue it?

Here's how Reuters summarizes the basics:

Europe's growing army of robot workers could be classed as "electronic persons" and their owners liable to paying social security for them if the European Union adopts a draft plan to address the realities of a new industrial revolution.

Robots are being deployed in ever-greater numbers in factories and also taking on tasks such as personal care or surgery, raising fears over unemployment, wealth inequality and alienation.

Their growing intelligence, pervasiveness and autonomy requires rethinking everything from taxation to legal liability, a draft European Parliament motion, dated May 31, suggests.

One part about government benefit systems reads "[T]he development of robotics and AI may result in a large part of the work now done by humans being taken over by robots, so raising concerns about the future of employment and the viability of social security systems if the current basis of taxation is maintained, creating the potential for increased inequality in the distribution of wealth and influence."

Fundamentally, statements like that are massive reminders that government entitlement and retirement programs are based on shifting money from one group of people to another and not some sort of savings program that people and employers pay into that sits in a "lockbox" earning money from investments and such. (Not that this report or these European nations are trying to pull the kind of shell game that goes on in America when talking about our Social Security programs.)

It furthermore assumes—as some always seem to have assumed going back to the very beginning of industrialization—that the job opportunities are finite resources, and once a job goes away due to innovation, the person who once worked that job is rendered to be completely obsolete with nothing else to offer the marketplace.

But that's just not how it works. In resistance to the idea that industries that automate might have to pay even more in taxes to pay for not having employees, one German robotics expert pointed out that the number of people employed by the automotive industry there has increased by 13 percent over the past five years even as the use of industrial robots also increased.

If you take a long view of industrialization and grasp that automation frees the marketplace to focus on other things, this statement from the report looks like a simple money grab. There's a separate section in the report that even acknowledges how automation creates new opportunities and new fields of work that should be studied and prepared for. And then immediately we end up here:

Bearing in mind the effects that the development and deployment of robotics and AI might have on employment and, consequently, on the viability of the social security systems of the Member States, consideration should be given to the possible need to introduce corporate reporting requirements on the extent and proportion of the contribution of robotics and AI to the economic results of a company for the purpose of taxation and social security contributions; takes the view that in the light of the possible effects on the labour market of robotics and AI a general basic income should be seriously considered, and invites all Member States to do so.

The idea of a basic guaranteed income has been appealing to a number of libertarians as a way of creating a safety net that doesn't come with a massive, corruptible, cronyist government bureaucracy. But in this setting, there's no indication that the recommendation here is to trade one benefit system with another, but rather a massive expansion. So these industries will have their taxes increased in order to fund people who don't work, and this will drive up the prices of goods. I fail to see how this would reduce income inequality.

Read the full report here (and note how the section on liability reads like a massive boon for lawyers and insurance providers). Read Katherine Mangu-Ward's 2015 Reason cover story on "The Robot Revolution" here.

Bonus: Here's a robot dog-giraffe washing the dishes. It's coming, folks! Today, your wine glasses; tomorrow, the world!