WHEN ROBOTS PAY TAXES
Reflections on Society 4.0
By Sabina Jeshke
[This article published December 2, 2004 is translated from the German on the Internet, http://www.digital-ist.de. Professor Sabina Jeschke is director of the Institute cluster at Aachen Technical University and addresses the embedding of completely autonomous mobile robot teams in the industrial world of work.]
One question always comes up whenever industry 4.0 is debated: what happens with jobs in increasing automation and what role will the person play in the economy of the future? As a rule, the answers are unsatisfactory. One reason lies in the limited way of thinking shown in the search for solutions to these completely changed social conditions.
We stand before a completely new era of artificial intelligence. This new era is announced by the many remarkable breakthroughs of the past two years like the IBM super computer Watson and the autonomous Google Car. Shared artificial intelligence plays a special role in this new era. The concepts of Cyber Physical Systems and the Internet of Things "are having a boom season." The first involves an alliance of several technical sub-components that communicate with each other through an Internet-based data infrastructure and the second the expansion of the "participatory concept" of the Internet.
Participants are also things - like the sensors of a car, climate data stations, data calculators of production technology as well as other information-supporting systems or systems directly interacting with their environment. Cyber Physical Systems and the Internet of Things are two developments of the same phenomenon. According to predictions, 50 billion gadgets next year will be communicating with each other - and with six billion people.
A central question concerns the effects of rapid automation on jobs in production: what activities will people take over in the "factory of the future" when more and more tasks can be done cheaply by robots and algorithms?
However the question is not formulated correctly. Who says arising jobs will appear where other jobs are lost? Jobs may not unconditionally arise in the context of production.
Considering the entire society, we will have "enough to do" - in the realm of health and nursing, education, integration of immigrants, the creative economy and many others. We often make the system too narrow and fall into panic - when one understands the whole 4.0 development - because production will obviously manage with fewer and fewer persons and the picture of the deserted factory will not reflect reality in the near future. The total number of jobs in this area will continue falling - with rising production figures, higher quality and a greater wealth of variety.
We should not be deluded in a na´ve confidence according to the motto: hope dies last. Often it is argued the disappearance of jobs in the context of massive automation is not new and has even led to a positive labor market development particularly in the second industrial revolution. That is true but one should not strain historical parallels because the conditions today are completely different. The majority of jobs in industry at that time did not correspond to human abilities. Dismantling many simple activities occurred parallel to the striving of individuals for higher education. Automation happened much slower at that time. A whole generation could adjust to the new conditions. A completely different situation prevails today in both points. Firstly, the efficiency of people cannot be increased indefinitely. Secondly, the time scale driven by digitalization and globalization is much shorter. We stand in the middle of revolutionary changes. The fourth industrial revolution was introduced through digitalization.
RECALIBRATION OF OUR WORLD VIEW
This upheaval affects practically all social areas, not only industry. Therefore we must think more radically in the search for solutions. It is time to recalibrate our world view.
Jobs are not only lost in production and the low-wage sector. The systematic dying of the great encyclopedias and their top qualifying co-workers while Wikipedia comes out on top is a good example. In 2009 the Federal Cartel office approved Bertelsmann's takeover of Brockhaus despite its market-dominating position because "the encyclopedia market has shriveled to a minor market." Many more examples could be cited like the upheavals in travel agencies or drug stores, journalism or the threat to teachers and professions by MOOCs. Strictly speaking, there is hardly a vocational field that is not put in question by the progressive digitalization. Whoever does not believe this should only recall what we thought ten years ago about the writing of quality encyclopedias. Merely because we could not imagine something does not mean it could not happen.
What would a reconfiguration of our world view look like? I would like to call to mind a few reflections from Frank Rieger's article "Automation Dividends for Everyone" in the Frankfurter Allgemeiner Zeitung newspaper. Rieger wrote correctly: "The current financing of our community is largely based on the taxation of human work and human consumption." The whole model logically capsizes if more and more parts of the taxation of human labor break down. The obvious step is the taxation of non-human work.
Practically we could try to solve the whole as follows. The products are produced by robots. Their sale brings money into the vaults of firms. These firms save costs from human labor and had additional automation expenses. A positive sum accrues because otherwise the investment in automation would have been uneconomical. A return flow of part of this profit in communities can be understood as "indirect taxation of non-human work" and thus as a "socialization of the automation dividend" in Rieger's words. As a result, it is almost as though robots pay taxes.
THREE CREATIVE PATHS FOR THE FUTURE
At least three projects using these funds are conceivable with these assumptions. The first is hardly original but nevertheless is right: "education, education and again education." In this way, more creative minds will arise for the innovation of new products, services and business ideas. Here there is still much to do. The social disparities between the promotion chances of a worker's child and a doctor's son must be considered. Education is a central presupposition for a society where the meaning of life is defined outside gainful employment and is not only necessary for competitiveness.
The next meaningful use of funds would be financing gainful employment that is centrally important for as humane society, for example in medicine, nursing or transfer of knowledge. Introduction of an unconditional basic income would be a third project. Such an initiative would initiate a very fundamental and visible social revolution. At its end there would be a model of society in which gainful employment would no longer represent the heart of every biography.
From my perspective, two discoveries remain at the end of the day. Firstly, we must bid farewell to the idea that only a person in gainful employment can be a happy person and full employment is the only desirable or worthwhile form of society. People need interesting and demanding activities. Otherwise they feel unfulfilled. However no one says these tasks must only lie in the area of classical gainful employment. There are also meaningful activities in other places: in the social area, in the realm of gaining knowledge in the academic sense and especially in creativity and art.
The second discovery is that we cannot evade this debate. The digitalization and the resulting development to increasingly more intelligent inter-linked systems have initiated a fourth industrial revolution and we stand in the middle of it. Completely new social models are needed. We must trust ourselves to put everything in question. Obviously the digital future also brings huge problems. Nevertheless it is also a chance - a chance to tackle social abuses existing today and a chance to solve these problems in the framework of very new ways of thinking and economic philosophies.