So about that Robot Tax…

Shu-Yi Oei

I came across a couple of news stories recently about how South Korea is introducing the world’s first robot tax. But based on the press reports, it sounds like the so-called robot tax is actually just a reduction of the tax deductions available to businesses that invest in productivity-boosting automation. The news sources themselves concede that this “robot tax” not exactly a tax on robots but rather a tax benefit reduction for automation investment.

Talk of a “robot tax” has landed at the forefront of tax news since Bill Gates mentioned it in a Quartz interview back in February of 2017. But of course, scholarship about robots (not to mention robots themselves) has been around for quite a bit longer. There’s even a “We-Robot” robotics law and policy conference that’s been going on since 2012, which I keep meaning to crash, but then there’s always something else going on.

A lot of what seems to be driving the tax conversation is the fear that robots are taking over jobs, though there’s some uncertainty about the extent to which robots are to blame.

Personally, I’ve been having a hard time squaring the newly ascendant tax conversation about the robot tax with the broader legal scholarship on robots. In some of the news and other commentary discussing Robotaxation, my reaction has been something to the effect of “I’m not sure that word means what you think it means.” Turns out, there is something of an existing conversation about what constitutes a robot in the first place—see, for example, Richards and Smart (2013) for a nice discussion of some of the definitional issues. See also this “What is a Robot?” piece in The Atlantic. In defining “robot,” it might matter how a robot moves in the physical world, what kind of quasi-independent agency it seems to exercise (autonomous vs. semi-autonomous), how humans interact with it, and even what sorts of emotions it triggers in us mere humans. We might understand some automated machines to be robots but others to just be automated equipment. And these distinctions make sense, from the viewpoint of areas like tort law, privacy law, the law of principals and agents, and the more general regulation of robots (and of artificial intelligence as a subcategory of robots).

But in some of the tax discussions about robots that I’ve seen on the interwebs, it’s quite clear that the authors don’t necessarily mean Robot when they say Robot. Continue reading “So about that Robot Tax…”