Robots Aren’t People — So Don’t Tax Them That Way

June 29, 2017  • Joanna Bryson

Joanna Bryson is a reader (associate professor) at the University of Bath and an affiliate of Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy. A transdisciplinary researcher on the structure and dynamics of human- and animal-like intelligence, her research covers topics ranging from artificial intelligence, through autonomy and robot ethics, and on to human cooperation. She will be speaking at The Thinking Machine track at the Aspen Ideas Festival. This post originally appeared on her blog.

As I often recount, I got involved in AI ethics because I was dumbfounded that people attributed moral patiency to Cog, the humanoid robot, when in fact it wasn’t plugged in, and didn’t work (this was 1993-1994).  The processors of its brain couldn’t talk to each other, they weren’t properly grounded.  Just because it was shaped like a human and they’d watched Star Wars, passers by thought it deserved more ethical consideration than they gave homeless people, who were actually people.

I started writing AI ethics papers way more frequently when I thought the administration of George W. Bush was trying to use Ron Arkin to do what Bush had done in Abu Ghraib – blame pawns for despicable policy.  Not that robots could ever be as culpable as privates in the military, but neither are responsible for creating the context of such vast abuse by power.

Now there’s a new moral hazard caused by faulty moral reasoning and transhumanists desperate quest for power and immortality.  When all my social medial icons were showing the EU flag to support the “Remain in the EU” campaign in the UK, the EU parliament came up with headlines about recognizing robots as persons in order to tax them.

Because I’d been asked by both the UK government and media, and now in the context of Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy, I’ve been doing research looking into whether automation causes economic inequality.  So far I am absolutely unconvinced that there’s a significant relationship.  I think inequality comes down to fiscal policy.

The last time we had this great of inequality (and its associated political polarization) was just before and after World War I.  AI hadn’t even been developed then; Turing was just conceiving of computation and algorithms.  Maybe the horror of the wars, or the economic crash of 1929, or the threat of communism or the unions – something led policy makers to create a context where inequality was kept low and wages kept pace with productivity.  Around 1978 that changed.  I suspect it’s because policy makers lost their fear of the USSR, because the USSR’s amazing economic recovery from Tsarist Russia finally plateaued around then, but I’m the only one saying that (so far). Anyway, something started allowing the elite to cash in again,  and here we are.

Blaming robots is insane, and taxing the robots themselves is insane.  This is insane because no robot comes spontaneously into being.  Robots are all constructed, and the ones that have impact on the economy are constructed by the rich.

I blame economists for not keeping up with what wealth even is.  You can’t say that Google et al gives everything away for free.  They pay people for providing information, and that wage should be taxed.  Or better, the wealth created out of that labour should be taxed.  If economists can’t keep up with where the wealth comes from, who cares?  We can see the wealth estimated in a corporation’s worth.  Let’s just tax that directly, and stop worrying about semantics.

The point of this blog post is that declaring robots to be persons so you can tax them makes no sense at all.  There’s no motivation for it, and it creates a moral hazard to dump responsibility into a pit that you cannot sue or punish. Yet for some reason someone has put a draft plan about that through the European Parliament. Hopefully we can head this off.

The views and opinions of the author are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.

Global Health
Confronting the Pandemic Threat
June 29, 2017 • Ronald Klain