Work, Taxation and the Future of Artificial Intelligence
The evolution of Artificial Intelligence and automation technologies has revived old concerns regarding the impacts of technology on the labor market, on income concentration and on public administration. More than ever, the threat of replacement of human workers by intelligent automations is present and real.
Differently from previous industrial revolutions, when mechanic muscles replaced organic ones and freed the human beings to concentrate on less tiresome jobs, the advent of mechanical brains will leave a huge amount of human brains without job or escape. The sectors potentially affected by Artificial intelligence may lead nearly half of our current human work force to unemployment, with some estimates going as high as 75%. This will be through no fault of their own, and there will be no time for reallocation and requalification for most of them.
If a machine can make the same work as a human being but faster and/or cheaper, what will happen with those replaced by automation? If they start depending even less on paid workers, how will owners of the means of production benefit? What are the consequences to the social fabric, for income disparity and to the labor market? What are possible solutions for the short, medium and long term?
This essay will establish parallel allegories between an ancient fable, a modern science fiction story and the state of things to come so as to understand how the future of artificial intelligence may positively or negatively affect us, and how can we avoid its collateral effects in short, medium and long terms.
On Aesop’s fable “The Ant and the Grasshopper”, two characters are opposed: one is the ant, a restless worker worried about ensuring food for when winter comes. The other is the Grasshopper, who is not worried with hardships and spends her time enjoying summer, singing and dancing. At the end of the story, winter arrives and the grasshopper has nothing to eat. It rests upon the Ant, whether for charity or not, to feed her friend with the product of her work.
Ghost in the Shell is a science fiction franchise set on a dystopian future when computer technology has advanced to such a degree that brain-machine interfaces allow for individuals to possess from simple cybernetic prosthetics to complete synthetic replacements of their bodies, allowing even for the existence of artificial intelligence unlinked to any physical body. The terms “Ghost” and “Shell” then arise to respectively designate the soul, the essence and the individuality of an intelligence and the ‘shell”, or physical body, in which it resides. Independently on how much of the biological is replaced by cybernetics, the “Ghost” retains its humanity and individuality. Usually, separation between both couldn’t exist. That is not the case anymore in Ghost in the Shell: a “ghost” may exist without a “shell” and vice-versa.
The relationship between human labor, artificial intelligence and technological advances may lead us to distorted versions of both scenarios, or even, to a merge of both. We will borrow ideas, imagery and elements from both to envision the possible solutions for challenges presented by the replacement of human labor by automations.
A short term solution: the ghost in the machine
Let’s consider that each workstation may be easily replaced by an artificial intelligence that works with equal or greater efficiency with a fraction of a human salary. This is the kind of scenario that we’ll probably see the following years: artificial intelligences with equal or greater efficiency compared to humans’, but for a fraction of the costs.
Owners of the means of production may then simply fire human employees and replace them with automated counterparts. Costs fall, profits rise, unemployment and income disparity increase and bring with them all those already known side effects.
To mitigate these effects, two proposals raise above the average: that of universal basic income and robot taxation.
The former has already been considered in richer countries such as Switzerland: the idea of an universal basic income paid by the State to any citizen unconditionally.
The latter, proposed by personalities such as Bill Gates, for instance, suggests a “tax over robots” as a remedy for income disparity and unemployment that might result from the massive automation of the labor market. Such a tax would be used to fuel welfare programs of all kinds: unemployment insurance, pensions or even the universal basic income itself.
We will take both ideas and combine them with blockchain technologies, smart contracts, artificial intelligence to turn automations – physical or virtual – from mere tools of productivity to tax-paying proto-personalities.
Just like in Ghost in the Shell, an automation may be divided in two parts: its “ghost” and its “shellI”. The ghost is its code and the shell, its physical body. A self-driving car, therefore, has a code that tells it what to do and a tangible rest that obeys.
Far from being singular and self-aware artificial intelligences like the ghosts in the science fiction universe, a code in an automation may still be treated like a proto-personality for other means: among them, taxation.
If every copy of an AI code is assigned to an unique identifier (Either a token or a hash id), registered on a blockchain, as well as to a wallet – also unique – and to a smart contract, there could be an embryo of legal personality.
The smart contract guarantees that said code will only work through payment of a predetermined value to the wallet associated with that unique identifier. It may also guarantee that a certain value – determined by external indexes – be automatically paid to a State-owned account as taxes. This will give birth to an effective tax over automation that cannot be withheld by the owner of that automation.
A fairer middle ground can then be achieved: the owner of the automation still no longer needs to pay a full salary for a human worker, but just a fraction of that value which previously corresponded to due taxes determined by the government. The ghost of that automation then becomes a tax-paying entity on its own, but one which can be transferred along different shells, traded or disposed of in a way a human being ought never be.
Collected taxes can then be directioned to pensions, to universal basic income and to unemployment insurance for human workers who were dismissed.
Medium term: Robots x Humans
In Ghost in the Shell, huge leaps in technology have allowed for human enhancement through cybernetic prosthetics. Whether separate limbs, eyes or entire brain-machine interface for direct communication with networks and systems, human beings in Ghost in the Shell have their capacities greatly augmented by technology.
The idea seems distant from our reality, but it is not. On the beginning of 2017, Elon Musk announced the creation of another company: Neuralink, which aims at developing a brain-machine interface that allows for the efficient use of information and of human mental capacities by merging the human brain with artificial intelligence. The goal, he says, is giving human beings some chance of competition against automations that threaten to replace them. We would then become more like the cyborgs in Ghost in the Shell.
While human enhancement through cybernetic implants and similar tweaks may actually restore competitivity of human workers in face of artificial ones, a core problem of automation remains: the potential to increase social inequality.
If effectively developed, these enhancements will most likely not be accessible by all strata of society and will thus bring with them a series of bioethical dilemmas.Those who do not possess enhancements, whether by free will or for economic reasons, will remain marginalized. Institutions such as universal income and tax on technology will still be necessary to mitigate the side effects of this social gap.
Conclusion and the long-term: Mechanical ants and human grasshoppers
As a conclusion to this analysis, we will use the first scenario presented at the beginning of the article: a subversion of Aesop’s fable.
When the first biologists observed ant colonies at work, their first reaction must have been of bewilderment and admiration. The apparent dedication of ants to hard work in favor of the collectiveness must have made them question why humanity couldn’t be more like the ants.
The advent of the Industrial Revolution has changed that view radically. Seeing proletarian masses submitted to endless and degrading work, they noticed on these masses sinister traits not before noticed on ants: the lack of individuality, of pleasure outside of work and of inner purpose. Although Aesop’s fable remained pertinent, a new value was seen on the grasshopper’s behavior towards life.
Gains in productivity brought by automation and by Industry 4.0 may, sooner or later, allow us to reach a point in which human labor loses most of its relevance. With automations undertaking most of the productive tasks, guaranteeing relative abundance and comfort for all of humanity, we may eventually achieve an utopian scenario where mechanical ants work for human grasshoppers, which can then concentrate on doing what they enjoy the most: enjoying summer without having to worry about winter.
Techno-utopias, however, never come true. H.G. Wells, in “The Time Machine”, warned us on what could happen with a population that does not work and does has no control over its means of production: it becomes destined to be food for those who have.