BILL GATES is an unlikely Luddite, however much Microsoft may have provoked people to take a hammer to their computers. Yet in a recent interview with Quartz, an online publication, he expressed scepticism about society’s ability to manage rapid automation. To forestall a social crisis, he mused, governments should consider a tax on robots; if automation slows as a result, so much the better. It is an intriguing if impracticable idea, which reveals a lot about the challenge of automation.

In some distant future robots with their own consciousnesses, nest-eggs and accountants might pay income taxes like the rest of us (presumably with as much enthusiasm). That is not what Mr Gates has in mind. He argues that today’s robots should be taxed—either their installation, or the profits firms enjoy by saving on the costs of the human labour displaced. The money generated could be used to retrain workers, and perhaps to finance an expansion of health care and education, which provide lots of hard-to-automate jobs in teaching or caring for the old and sick.

A robot is a capital investment, like a blast furnace or a…Continue reading