Robot taxes a hot topic at We Robot 2018 legal conference

Stanford University campus; credit: Frank Schulenburg, via Wikimedia commons

By Joanne Pransky

Should robots pay taxes? Are robot taxes a good way to respond to potential employment disruptions from automation, or might they stifle innovation and hurt global competitiveness? The debate continues, as governments, businesses, and researchers examine policy options.

The European Union has considered robot taxes, but the International Federation of Robotics and other organizations have said that they would be a bad idea. The U.S. and U.K. are still weighing the complexities of robot taxes.

Last month, Stanford Law School hosted the seventh annualĀ We Robot 2018, a robotics law and policy conference. We Robot is intended to foster conversations between the people designing, building, and deploying robots and those who design or influence the legal and social structures in which these robots will operate. The interdisciplinary conference combined scholarly contributions by academics and practitioners, provided an in-depth workshop, and presented technological demonstrations.

This year’s We Robot gathered approximately 200 academics, policymakers, roboticists, economists, ethicists, entrepreneurs, and lawyers from around the globe. Attendees and presenters discussed the future of technology, society, and topics such as robot taxes.

In all, 129 papers were submitted to the Program Committee, and 16 were chosen for the agenda in which lively audience dialogues were led by an expert moderator.

The paper, Should Robots Pay Taxes? Tax Policy in the Age of Automation authored by Ryan Abbott, a professor of law and health sciences at the University of Surrey/UCLA, and Bret Bogenschneider, senior lecturer in finance law and ethics at the University of Surrey, is presented here. It was originally published in Volume 12.1 of the Harvard Law and Policy Review.

“This article starts a long-overdue conversation about the role of tax policy in dealing with the rise of AI and robotics,” noted the paper’s specialist moderator, Robert J. Kovacev, a partner at Steptoe & Johnson LLP. “Current tax policy favors the implementation of automation and disincentivizes employing human workers.”

“But the tax systems of most developed nations rely heavily on payroll and wage income taxes to provide government revenues,” he added. “As the capabilities of robots increase, there may be a perfect storm of increased worker displacement and lower tax revenues. This paper considers different ways to change tax policy in order to address those challenges.”

“Robot tax proposals pose serious administrative challenges and threaten to slow the pace of innovation, but an economic downturn could create populist momentum for such proposals,” said Kovacev. “It is vital that the robotics industry advocate for a responsible tax policy addressing these challenges before a crisis arises.”

The list of other papers from the conference can be found at https://conferences.law.stanford.edu/werobot/agenda/.

Next year’s We Robot will be hosted at the University of Miami School of Law on April 12-13, 2019.