Europe’s war against the tech age may be entering a new phase, as draft legislation has been introduced to decree that robots must be treated as human workers—and taxed as such. Reuters reports:
Europe’s growing army of robot workers could be classed as “electronic persons” and their owners liable to paying social security for them if the European Union adopts a draft plan to address the realities of a new industrial revolution.[..]
Their growing intelligence, pervasiveness and autonomy requires rethinking everything from taxation to legal liability, a draft European Parliament motion, dated May 31, suggests.
The draft motion called on the European Commission to consider “that at least the most sophisticated autonomous robots could be established as having the status of electronic persons with specific rights and obligations”.
It also suggested the creation of a register for smart autonomous robots, which would link each one to funds established to cover its legal liabilities.[..]
The draft motion, drawn up by the European parliament’s committee on legal affairs also said organizations should have to declare savings they made in social security contributions by using robotics instead of people, for tax purposes.
It’s an old trope in sci-fi to worry about the “human” rights of self-conscious but non-human robotic But this would appear to have less to do with the 2030s (the time in which I, Robot is set) than the 1950s and ’60s—the golden age of the post-War European Blue Model.
Whether you call them “electronic persons” or not, robots don’t retire (and don’t need to save for it), don’t have healthcare needs (and their owners, not the state, services them), don’t have families, and, you know, aren’t people. That’s what makes them attractive to employers, particularly in an age when automation gets cheaper and cheaper while human workers grow more and more expensive. But for labour, companies that thrived under the old model, and the bureaucrats that oversee (and to some extent are symbiotic with) both those groups, this makes the new age a threat—to jobs, to income, to tax revenue. Solution?
Clearly just mandate that robots are people, preferably well-compensated, highly-taxed Frenchmen circa 1960. Hey presto! Competitive edge against human labour removed, assembly lines fill back up, tax receipts continue to flow in, all back to normal—right?
Obviously not: making it very expensive for French or Belgian companies to use robots won’t stop the U.S. or the increasingly automated manufacturing centers of East, South-East, and South Asia from using them. It will just cause Europe to fall (further) behind.
It’s notable that one of the few parts of Europe to protest this move is the one that’s doing best out of automated manufacturing:
Germany’s VDMA, which represents companies such as automation giant Siemens and robot maker Kuka , says the proposals are too complicated and too early.[..]
Patrick Schwarzkopf, managing director of the VDMA’s robotic and automation department, said: “That we would create a legal framework with electronic persons – that’s something that could happen in 50 years but not in 10 years.”
“We think it would be very bureaucratic and would stunt the development of robotics,” he told reporters at the Automatica robotics trade fair in Munich, while acknowledging that a legal framework for self-driving cars would be needed soon.
“Stunt[ing] the development of robotics” would appear to be the point, Mr. Schwarzkopf.
We’ve been following the bad news on the European tech front for a while now. from the European digital gap to the ongoing willingness of Brussels bureaucrats to gang up with entrenched interest groups to take on (often American) tech firms.
While Europe has a long history of successful innovation, there remains no guarantee that the Continent will actually turn the corner. The Ottoman and Chinese Empires, among many others, stand out as reminders in history that it’s entirely possible for once-dynamic, dominant parts of the globe to slide into stagnation and eventually decay when they dig in their heels and resist technology that the rest of the world is embracing. (Even while, as was also the cases for both those empires, protesting loudly about central government-led efforts to modernize.)
Though it may not pass (and if it did, it appears it may not be binding), that the EU would put so much effort into something like this doesn’t inspire us with confidence in Europe’s future. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle—and you can’t make the tech revolution go away just because you loved the Blue Model.