By replacing low-wage cashiers and other retail workers with robots, the retail sector’s struggling companies can engineer a potentially life-saving boost in profits. But as advances in artificial intelligence continue to accelerate, according to the World Economic Forum, large swaths of laborers are going to lose their jobs, leading to unprecedented levels of unemployment.
How to distribute the profits that will accrue to corporations thanks to this paradigmatic shift in labor-market conditions has been the subject of intense debate, as it has the capacity to create a sharp drop in living standards across developed economies.
So how can governments ameliorate this diminution of the American workforce? The WEF has an idea: Tax the robots and use the proceeds to fund a universal basic income for all Americans. As the paper notes, the once-controversial UBI has never been more poplar, thanks to tech luminaries like Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and Bill Gates – all of whom have spoken in glowing tones about the policy’s potential to save America from dystopia. Yet, for all this talk, Zuckerberg & Co. have glossed over a crucial question: How, exactly, will taxpayers afford this?
The WEF says it looked to the private sector for answers, and came up with this simple conclusion: Tax the robots.
“Companies will profit significantly from workforce automation,” WEF writes. “So the private sector will be able to afford shouldering this burden, while at the same time still making greater profits.”
The WEF cites a small, yet successful, experiment that was conducted in the UK, and Ontario, as justification for its plan, which it fleshes out in greater detail below:
“As the robots take over, people will begin to lose their jobs, but companies will be fine. More likely than that – they’ll thrive. The profits generated from automation could be used to pay a basic wage to those displaced by robots. To use the welder example from before, a company could slash the cost of their production by at least a third in a short period of time, and would continue to see greater profits as efficiencies increase and the price for parts drops. If that company eventually arrives at the $2 an hour mark that BCG predicts, the company’s bottom line would have been improved by 1250%.
Given all of the savings and massive profits companies are going to reap from these new technologies, they should be responsible for using part of this monetary kick-back to help the workers they’ve displaced. Legislators might consider a sliding-scale automation tax, where a company qualifying itself as using an automated workforce would be taxed depending on how many human workers they have performing tasks compared to how many tasks are performed by automated workers that a human could rightly do. This money could then be put into a UBI fund that is then distributed by the government to citizens affected by automation—or to the entire population.”
While startup costs associated with building a robotic workforce might appear daunting, the WEF notes that they’ve fallen sharply in recent years, and will likely continue to decline as advances in AI technology sharpen robots’ ability to work side-by side with humans.
Some of the largest some of the largest food-service and retail companies have announced initiatives centered around providing customers with a more seamless shopping experience. Cowen's Andrew Charles, the analyst calculates the jump in sales at McDonald’s as a result of the company's new Experience of the Future strategy which anticipates that digital ordering kiosks (shown above) will replace cashiers in at least 2,500 restaurants by the end of 2017 and another 3,000 over 2018.
This trend will only continue to accelerate. McDonald’s, an early pioneer of automation, is already replacing human workers with automated kiosks. They expect a 5% to 9% return on investment in just the first year; in 2019 they expect this return to balloon to double digits. And this is only one sector: PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that 38% of US jobs will be in danger of being replaced by automation by 2030.
To this, WEF adds that Micky D’s expects a 5% to 9% return on investment in just the first year; in 2019 they expect this return to balloon to double digits.
Amazon.com’s nearly $14 billion acquisition of Whole Foods Market has spurred (long overdue) calls from a handful of Congressional Democrats for an investigation into Amazon’s business practices on anti-trust grounds. Over the past few years, the company’s push for speedier delivery times (it offers same day delivery in certain markets through its Amazon Prime service) and an increasingly expansive away of products is devastating smaller retails and brands.
Some smaller retailers, having ascertained the existential threat Bezo’s blatantly monopolistic business practices pose, have started to push back, setting the stage for a full-scale battle between Amazon and its smaller rivals. In an email sent to authorized retailers, the CEO of Birkenstock USA threatened to cut off any retailers who violate the company’s strict policies surrounding reselling by turning over their stock to Amazon. The e-commerce giant has allegedly been reaching out to individual Birkenstock retailers, offering to buy out their entire stock at full price. Amazon has denied these claims. Already, retail bankruptcies have surged 110% in the first half of this year, according to a report by Fitch as retail surpasses battered energy as the most distressed industry in the US.
Unfortunately, US officials aren’t treating the problem of creeping automation with the deference that the WEF says it deserves. Case in point:
“At the exponential rate of robotization, there isn’t a lot of time for legislators to figure out the intricacies of a solution – but they don’t seem to be in too much of a rush. Steven Mnuchin, the US’s treasury secretary, is already completely ignoring this issue, for example.”
Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen acknowledged the severity of the problem during her Congressional testimony following questions from two Republican senators. To be sure, the Fed doesn’t have the authority to raise taxes (though it could easily choose to monetize these handouts by agreeing to buy more government bonds). Stagnant wages, worsening labor-force participation and expanding deflationary prices have been linked by economists to increasing automation. In a recent study, PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that 38% of US jobs will be in danger of being replaced by automation by 2030.