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Cooking the Books: Bill Gates on Robots

The online magazine Quartz (17 February) put up a video interview with Bill Gates under the headline 'The robot that takes your job should pay taxes, says Bill Gates'.

Gates didn't say anything particularly profound. The point he made was that robotisation would release workers for other kinds of work, but that this would have to be paid for, one source of money for this being a tax on robots, i. e., on capitalist firms installing them. The other kind of work he had in mind was catering better for some particular human needs:

'what the world wants is to take this opportunity to make all the goods and services we have today, and free up labor, let us do a better job of reaching out to the elderly, having smaller class sizes, helping kids with special needs. You know, all of those are things where human empathy and understanding are still very, very unique. And we still deal with an immense shortage of people to help out there.'

Cooking the Books: But Who Owns the Machines?

‘STEPHEN HAWKING Says We Should Really Be Scared of Capitalism, Not Robots’ wrote Alexander C Kaufman, the Business Editor of the Huffington Post, last 8 October. Hawking didn’t actually use the word capitalism but he might as well have done:

‘If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever increasing inequality.’

In one sense we are already in this position of being able to produce ‘everything we need’. Not that machines operated by robots could now produce this on their own, but  in the sense that machines operated by human labour could. But the outcome will depend on who owns the machines.

Letter: If Robots Take Over

Dear Editors

In your October edition you published an article entitled ‘Robots of the World - you have nothing to lose but your blockchains’.

Although it was highly amusing it only superficially dealt with a problem in economics that intrigues me. At the moment automation (robots) are merely advanced tools (constant capital) where the profit is made by the labour manufacturing the programming and fabrication (variable capital). What happens when the robots become ‘self-programming’ and able to build themselves? Does the ‘organic composition of capital’ become such that the variable part is so negligible that profits plunge? Will profit levels be held up by the monopolistic ownership of these robots and the increased productivity they represent? Surely the capitalists not within that particular industry would object on free market grounds?

Andrew Westley, Cambridge

Pathfinders: Robots of the World - You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Blockchains

The bosses own the means of production – that's what makes them bosses. So what will happen when the means of production own themselves? Er, come again? Yes, we are talking about automated intelligent production and distribution systems, managing themselves, recycling their income back into their own maintenance programmes, entirely without human agency. You call a cab, the cab turns up and it takes you (yes, it's driverless) where you want to go, debits your online account, and uses that income to buy its next 10 gallons of fuel and pay its automated garage cleaning and servicing subscription.

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