What is the point of a robot tax?

While browsing articles on Artificial Intelligence, I stumbled across a piece by Milton Ezrati at Forbes. Discussing the possibility of a robot tax? This idea had been proposed by Bill de Blasio before he gave up his bid to gain the Democratic presidential nomination. Ezrati thinks it is a dreadful idea, but he is aware that both Silicon Valley leaders and current government progressives are quite keen on it.

According to the article, a robot tax would have four parts: First, it would apply to any company introducing labour saving automation. Second, it would insist that this employer either find new jobs for the displaced workers at their same pay level or pay them a severance. Third, the tax would require a new federal agency, the Federal Automation and Worker Protection Agency (FAWPA) and fourth, it would require Washington eliminate all tax incentives for any innovation that leads to automation.

The assumption appears to be that workers displaced by automation will never again find work at a comparable wage. Elon Musk for one, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are amongst those who are worried about this aspect of it, as is Democratic candidate, Andrew Yang, who suggests the introduction of a universal basic income, “to substitute, he claims, for the incomes lost to robots and artificial intelligence generally.”

However, it is not proven that the introduction of AI and robots will disadvantage workers so substantially. As Ezrati say, “innovation, if it initially displaces some workers, always eventually creates many more new jobs even as it boosts overall productivity and increases output.”

And, as he also points out, “since the industrial revolution began more than 250 years ago, business and industry have actively applied wave after wave of innovation and yet economies have nonetheless continued to employ on average some 95 percent of those who want to work.”

In my opinion, and in this respect I am in agreement with Ezrati, we have focused far too much on what will be lost with the introduction of more robotics, and not sufficiently on what is to be gained. His analogy that uses the introduction of email and the Internet regarding typists’ jobs illustrates this. Whilst those working in admin, messenger departments and typing pools no longer had their current job, new forms of employment emerged for them.

Similarly, when the introduction of automatic teller machines threatened to throw thousands of bank clerks out of work, the machines created profits that meant they could employ more tellers, and these tellers, with the assistance of different technologies, could do more interesting, complex, and valuable jobs at higher pay than they received before the ATMs were put in place.

A robot tax would be counter-productive and stunt growth in innovation, hampering the possibility of finding new types of jobs and improving living standards. It’s a proposed tax that simply doesn’t make sense.

Data for sale on eBay

When eBay launched it became the go-to place for buying electrical items at vastly reduced prices, amongst other things. Its auction bidding style provided an element of excitement where the user could become a ‘winner’ by making the best bid. Counting down the hours and minutes until the sale closed could be a nail-biting affair.

Since then eBay has vastly expanded the range of items for sale and it is a marketplace where any individual can set up their stall. Now something rather interesting about eBay has come to light, according to a Forbes article; around 42% of the hard drives sold on the site contain sensitive data.

The analysis came via Ontrack research for a Blanco Technology Group report. It revealed that hard drives bought in the USA, UK, Germany and Finland contained sensitive data as well as personal information.

Birth certificates, passports and more

The researchers spoke to sellers, all of whom claimed they had used proper “data sanitisation methods” to ensure no data remained on the drives. The report showed this was clearly untrue. It showed, “One drive belonged to a software developer “with a high level of government security clearance” that still contained scanned images of family passports and birth certificates along with financial records.” And they also found,” a drive with 5GB of archived internal office email from a major travel company, 3GB of data from a freight company including documents that detailed shipping schedules and truck registrations, university student papers and associated email addresses and school data that was comprised of photos and documents with pupil names and grades.”

Fredrik Forslund, vice-president of cloud and data erasure at Blanco remarked on the situation: “Selling old hardware via an online marketplace might feel like a good option, but in reality it creates a serious risk of exposing dangerous levels of personal data.”

This is not a case of widespread data theft, or intent to damage a specific business. For criminals to benefit from this information, they would have to buy a lot of hard drives and even then they cannot be sure what data they will get, or indeed if there is any on the hard drive.

But Tim Erlin, vice-president of product management and strategy at Tripwire, warns that although this might make it seem as if there isn’t a problem, “it might lower the concern, but it shouldn’t eliminate it.”

How to avoid selling data on eBay

Getting rid of a hard drive requires care and any business should have a process in place for removing any sensitive data. Old processes, such as using magnets are outmoded, and Solid State Drives (SSDs) require a different approach altogether. Tim Mackey, senior technical evangelist at Synopsys suggests that in order to ensure certainty data cannot be recovered, physically destroying, or shredding, the drive is the answer.

It is likely that large organisations have the systems in place to perform this kind of data sanitisation effectively, but small and mediums sized businesses may not. And it is likely that the majority of the hard drives for sale on eBay come from those businesses who see selling old hard drives on the site as a way to recoup some money.

We need to be more aware than ever of the value of data and the importance of data security. If you are getting rid of a hard drive connected to business use, ensure it is properly destroyed and that you have confirmation of its destruction. Don’t let it end up on eBay where you have no idea who might find that it still contains valuable information.

Protecting humanity as AI grows

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is going through the process of evolution. To date we have seen the emergence of artificial narrow intelligence (ANI), and artificial general intelligence (AGI) to artificial super intelligence (ASI). Those working in the field predict that it won’t be long until AI is able to “combine the intricacy and pattern recognition strength of human intelligence with the speed, memory and knowledge sharing of machine intelligence,” as Jayshree Pandya writes in his recent Forbes article.

One of the upshots of this progress is that people feel less insecure and fear what this may mean for their future, particularly with regard to employment. After all if AI can replace most manual and mundane work that will affect a significant number of people in manufacturing industries. As Pandya points out, “with all these new digital assistants and decision-making algorithms assisting and directing humans, more complex day-to-day work for humans is being greatly lessened.” It would be nice to think that this will mean humans can put their feet up and relax, but who will fund that? The robots won’t pay for sure.

Of course, there is hope for humans, because no mater how much AI technology is hyped, it simply can’t replicate the human brain, because elements like memory and conscience are as yet a long way off and are only a part of some computer scientist’s dream of a human-like artificial intelligence.

Super scary Super ASI

Pandya believes that the “potential development of artificial super intelligence points to a frankly scary scenario in the coming years.” He thinks that the processing power of the human brain may not be able to match that of ASI in the long-term, which is indeed a frightening thought. It may well be inevitable that AI will reach a point where it will be able to improve its own software design and capabilities far beyond what its designers envisioned: like the monster that Dr Frankenstein could not control.

Will AI overtake human intelligence?

Another concern is that human intelligence may dumb down as AI takes over tasks. If the human brain is not allowed the opportunities to learn new skills, how will its development suffer? That is a tough question to answer. And the answer to it may define the future of humanity, which has for all of recorded history relied on the sophistication of human natural intelligence for survival. Pandya says, “the question everyone across nations needs to evaluate today is whether our efforts should be towards enhancing human intelligence or artificial intelligence.”

We need to start planning now for the future when our intelligence may be seen as inferior to that of AI. It sounds like science fiction, but we can no longer dismiss it as a scenario created by a novelist or Hollywood.

Don’t be afraid of robots, says World Bank

The World Bank has published a report annually since 1978. Each report focuses on a detailed analysis of one aspect of economic development and for 2019 the topic is robots and automation and how it is impacting on the world of work.

Bloomberg interviewed Pinelopi Koujianou Goldberg, the World Bank’s Chief Economist, about the report and one of her first statements was: “This fear that robots have eliminated jobs — this fear is not supported by the evidence so far.”

The fear arises from the fact that in the first world a substantial number of jobs have been lost in the industrial sector, while in East Asia the there has been a rise in employment in industry. The World Bank report notes the anxiety about job losses, but claims “the number of jobs lost to automation is about equal to the number of jobs created, even if technology is changing the nature of those jobs in several ways.”

In the World Development Report 2019: The Changing Nature of Work, World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim said:

“The nature of work is not only changing — it’s changing rapidly. We don’t know what jobs children in primary school today will compete for, because many of those jobs don’t exist yet. The great challenge is to equip them with the skills they’ll need no matter what future jobs look like — skills such as problem-solving and critical thinking, as well as interpersonal skills like empathy and collaboration. By measuring countries according to how well they’re investing in their people, we hope to help governments take active steps to better prepare their people to compete in the economy of the future.”

Koujianou Goldberg also commented on the changing nature of work, telling Bloomberg: “This is the fourth industrial revolution, there have been three before, and in each case we managed to survive so it’s not the case that machines completely eliminated humans.”

However, not everyone agrees with the World Bank’s assessment of the situation with regard to a radical change in the types of jobs available. Gizmodo argues that the World Bank has not considered the quality of the jobs available, or the social and cultural impact of the loss of certain jobs and responds to the idea of robotics bringing a fourth industrial revolution as an idea to be treated with caution. Gizmodo also says, “There is a reason that many of the regions hit hardest by automation voted in the largest numbers for Trump.”

It also points out that reports like the one from the World Bank are useful as a window into how elites — i.e., those doing a lot of the automating — view mechanization.

What is clear that there are good arguments from both viewpoints and that what we need is dialogue between the two, so that we plan for an industrial revolution that is less harmful to those communities most affected by automation than in the past.