After robots take our jobs, who will pay for social security?

It's not science fiction: robots will soon become contributing members of the workforce, and the European Parliament wants the European Union to start planning for the not-so-distant future.

Francois Mori/AP/File
Pepper, a robot made by Softbank Robotics Europe performs during the Innorobo European summit, which focuses on service robots, in Aubervilliers, France, in May. The European Parliament is considering a proposal to grant 'smart robots' a legal status of 'electronic persons.'

The European Parliament's committee on legal affairs wants the European Union to prepare for a not too-distant future when intelligent robots will become contributing members of society -- holding down jobs, creating intellectual property, and interacting in a natural way with humans.

One of many questions that the committee has posed: Who will pay for social welfare programs when there are no humans left on the payroll?

“The development of robotics and AI (artificial intelligence) may result in a large part of the work now done by humans being taken over by robots, so raising concerns about the future of employment and the viability of social security systems if the current basis of taxation is maintained,” writes the committee.

Though it will be a long time before self-aware robots roam among us, as the committee worries, machines replacing humans in the global workforce already is revolutionizing human labor and reshaping economies.

A changing workforce

The social security question is part of a draft proposal released by the committee in May. It calls on the European Commission to seriously consider the ethical, legal and economic implications of a world run by machines -- and how it could affect the future of work and the economic structures that depend on human labor.

The proposal, which reads like an outline to a science fiction novel, replete with references to genre classics such as Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," also raises the question of who’s legally responsible for an intelligent robot’s harmful actions and who should own the copyright on a piece of "intellectual creation" by a computer.

“Humankind stands on the threshold of an era when ever more sophisticated robots … seem poised to unleash a new industrial revolution, which is likely to leave no stratum of society untouched, it is vitally important for the legislature to consider all its implications,” it writes.

Though they're far from the intelligent robots of the future, sales of industrial robots have increased four-fold since 2009, according to a June 22 report from the International Federation of Robotics. The global sales of 248,000 industrial robots last year, mostly used in factory production, was an all-time record, says the federation.

A global issue

More than one in four robots sold in 2015 went to China’s robust manufacturing industry. Martin Ford, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and author of Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, views this as a “troubling trend” for the country’s economic growth, which has stumbled recently thanks to declining factory jobs and low consumer spending.

“Over the last decade, China has become, in the eyes of much of the world, a job-eating monster, consuming entire industries with its seemingly limitless supply of low-wage workers,” he writes in a 2015 column in The New York Times. “But the reality is that China is now shifting its appetite to robots, a transition that will have significant consequences for China’s economy — and the world’s.”

One example of how drastically labor in China is changing is consumer electronics manufacturer Foxconn, which counts Apple among its clients. Foxconn plans to automate about 70 percent of factory work within three years; it already has a fully robotic factory.

Things are not much different in the United States. Researchers from Oxford University predicted in 2013 that half of jobs in the US will be filled by robots in a decade or two. The first occupations to see more bots than humans clocking in will be taxi and delivery drivers, predict the authors, plus office and administrative support employees, and factory workers.

The European parliament’s legal committee proposes a tax structure of the future that would require employers of intelligent robots to report how many they employ, and how much money that saves their companies on social security contributions, which they would have to repay. Mr. Ford has similar ideas.

“In principle, we’ll need to shift the tax burden,” he tells The Christian Science Monitor. “Owners of capital are the same people who own robots, so we will have to find a different tax structure.”

Though there doesn't appear to be a similar push in the US to develop a plan to regulate the AI future envisioned by the European Parliament, Jerry Kaplan, an author and Stanford University professor on AI ethics, says that the federal government is developing rules now for one of the most pressing national issues related to robotics: autonomous cars. Some predict that these self-driving vehicles will begin appearing on US roads around 2020.

The US military also is grappling with ethical issues related to using AI in weaponry, particularly in whether machines should be involved in decisions to kill.

“There is a fair amount of discussion,” says Dr. Kaplan to the Monitor. “But it hasn’t been the type of stuff that would pop up in popular press.”

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