August 19, 2016      

Is this the rise of undocumented robots?

All those countries that brag about the ratio of robots they have to human workers, like Germany’s 292 for every 10,000 workers, might be toning down the bragging rights very soon, especially now that the EU is looking to levy a special tax on what’s being called “electronic persons”.

Yes, you heard correctly: taxing robots, and they don’t mean just a sales tax. “The European Union (EU) is considering a draft plan that could see Europe’s growing army of robot workers classed as ‘electronic persons’, with their owners liable to pay social security for them.”

So what happens when any government anywhere announces that it’s thinking of taxing anything? Everyone starts hiding stuff from the tax man. Looks like robots could well be next.

This could even backfire on the EU. Think about truckloads of contraband in the form of undocumented robots sneaking into the EU under the cover of darkness every night.

And as we all know, such taxes are always passed along to consumers in some form of another. All of which means that the taxpayers, the very people who are fearful over robots snatching up their jobs, will now be paying for the robots to do so.

Drafting the proposed EU legislation was Mady Delvaux-Stehres, Member of the European Parliament, Vice-Chair of the Committee on Legal Affairs, Chair of the Working Group on robotics. See: DRAFT REPORT with recommendations to the Commission on Civil Law Rules on Robotics.

The legislation, if enacted, would go deep into the pocketbooks of European companies that employ robots.

Reuters reported that the “draft motion, drawn up by the European parliament’s committee on legal affairs also said organizations should have to declare savings they made in social security contributions by using robotics instead of people, for tax purposes.”

Taxing social security contributions would be burdensome especially to those EU members that already have steep social security tax obligations.

“We think it would be very bureaucratic and would stunt the development of robotics,” said Patrick Schwarzkopf, managing director of the VDMA’s robotic and automation department. The VDMA (Verband Deutscher Maschinen- und Anlagenbau, Mechanical Engineering Industry Association) represents over 3,100 mostly medium-sized companies in the capital goods industry, making it the largest industry association in Europe.

The VDMA, representing such companies as automation giant Siemens and robot maker KUKA, feels the proposal is too complicated and too soon.

The money involved in this tax scheme is very significant: German robotics and automation turnover rose 7 percent to $13.8 billion last year.

Schwarzkopf, pushing the thought of taxation way down the road, said that’s something that “could happen in 50 years,” giving the EU a cool five decades to think it over.

Reuters also reported that the EU would be considering “the creation of a register for smart autonomous robots, which would link each one to funds established to cover its legal liabilities.”

Thankfully for EU robot-buying businesses, even if voted upon and passed, it would be a “non-binding resolution as the Parliament lacks the authority to propose legislation.”

The legislation

Although Delvaux-Stehres’ introduction to the proposed legislation is standard EU fare, it reads vaguely like a series of movie blurbs for late-night watching. Like this:

“A. whereas from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s Monster to the classical myth of Pygmalion, through the story of Prague’s Golem to the robot of Karel ?apek, who coined the word, people have fantasized about the possibility of building intelligent machines, more often than not androids with human features;
And this:

“B. whereas now that humankind stands on the threshold of an era when ever more sophisticated robots, bots, androids and other manifestations of artificial intelligence (“AI”) seem poised to unleash a new industrial revolution, which is likely to leave no stratum of society untouched, it is vitally important for the legislature to consider all its implications;”

It goes on like that through to the letter “M”.

Although, the literary allusions are refreshingly cute considering she’s a politician, we are talking serious stuff here, like big taxes. Before becoming an engineer, Delvaux-Stehres studied classical literature at the Sorbonne, so maybe therein is the font of her playfulness .

Speaking of TV, there’s a nifty dramatic series hiding away in all of this; like maybe two (male and female) Jean Valjean-type intelligent robots on the run from one seamy warehouse to another, relentlessly pursued by an evil Inspector Javert-type tax collector.