The EU, Robots, and Star Trek

By Diane Ring

Even in the midst of great turmoil surrounding the Brexit vote, I was intrigued by recent reports that the EU is contemplating taxing robots on their “labor.” My initial reaction was that this focus on “sophisticated autonomous” robotic forms was Star Trek meets employment taxes, reminiscent of an episode in which the ship’s android officer, Data, asserts and argues for status as a sentient being rather than a piece of shipboard machinery to be disposed of at will. See generally Episode 9, Season 2 (“The Measure of a Man”) of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

While my sci-fi vision of EU legislation was enticing, it turns out that the motivations for this proposal were grounded in much more immediate concerns . . .

In a draft report released 31 May 2016, the European Parliament’s Committee on Legal Affairs outlined a motion for a European Parliament Resolution that would define and classify “smart robots,” require their registration, provide for civil law liability for damages caused by robots, introduce an obligatory insurance scheme for harm caused by robots, provide access to robot source code to facilitate investigation of accidents, and specify a code of ethical conduct for robotics engineers. But also included in this draft report, which referenced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s Monster and also Asimov’s Laws, was the following draft language of a motion for a European Parliament Resolution:

“Bearing in mind the effects that the development and deployment of robotics and AI might have on employment and, consequently, on the viability of the social security systems of the Member States, consideration should be given to the possible need to introduce corporate reporting requirements on the extent and proportion of the contribution of robotics and AI to the economic results of a company for the purpose of taxation and social security contributions; [the European Parliament] takes the view that in the light of the possible effects on the labour market of robotics and AI a general basic income should be seriously considered, and invites all Member States to do so.”

While not exactly an immediate call for such “electronic persons” to be on the social security rolls this year, the language has been understood to suggest that businesses using such robots (instead of human workers) should pay into the social security system in order to compensate for the lost tax revenue due to the declining use of human workers. The report itself further observed that: “the development of robotics and AI may result in a large part of the work now done by humans being taken over by robots,  . . . [thereby] raising concerns about the future of employment and the viability of social security systems if the current basis of taxation is maintained.”

Clearly, the focus here was less on the immediate prospect of self-aware electronic persons participating in the social security system as equal workers (both contributing and perhaps needing financial support in later years), and more on the tax and financial implications of increased reliance on technology rather than human workers in the economy. Certainly these are serious concerns, but they are much less about Star Trek and much more about “selection and evolution of the tax base” in a changing economy. Regardless, the draft report makes fascinating reading for the host of legal and social issues that accompany advances in technology.

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