According to one recent report, tech advances mean that as many as half of jobs could be lost to artificial intelligence in the next 25 years. If it turns out to be right, that means most check-out clerks and truck drivers, warehouse workers and even lawyers will soon go the way of travel agents. Robots really are coming to take (many of) our jobs.

What will we do about all the people who lose their livelihoods? It's a hotly contested subject, with several startup luminaries, including Elon Musk, insisting governments are going to have to start providing a universal basic income to every citizen. (Finland is already experimenting with the idea.)

But Bill Gates has a slightly different suggestion. In a recent interview with Quartz editor-in-chief Kevin Delaney, the billionaire Microsoft founder argues that the right approach to our job-scarce future may simply be to tax the robots (OK, really the owners of the robots) that replace human labor.

Cushioning our transition to a A.I.-filled future

A video and transcript of the complete interview is available here, but this is the essence of his idea:

Right now, the human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory, that income is taxed and you get income tax, social security tax, all those things. If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you'd think that we'd tax the robot at a similar level.

And what the world wants is to take this opportunity to make all the goods and services we have today, and free up labor, let us do a better job of reaching out to the elderly, having smaller class sizes, helping kids with special needs. You know, all of those are things where human empathy and understanding are still very, very unique.

Skeptics might argue that such a policy would make businesses less inclined to invest in productivity-boosting technology, slowing innovation. Gates, it seems, can live with that possibility if it cushions some of the human cost of the transition to an A.I.-filled future.

"You ought to be willing to raise the tax level and even slow down the speed of that adoption somewhat to figure out, 'OK, what about the communities where this has a particularly big impact? Which transition programs have worked and what type of funding do those require?'" he tells Delaney. If we fail to take the time to work out those answers, we're in for a rude shock, he worries, as so many industries are ripe for disruption all at once.

The free market, he believes, can't handle the transition alone. "A lot of the excess labor is going to need to go help the people who have lower incomes," he notes, adding that "Yes, some of it will go to, 'Hey, we'll be richer and people will buy more things.' But the inequity-solving part, absolutely government's got a big role to play there."

What do you think of Gates's idea?

Published on: Feb 21, 2017
The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of