Thoughts on Mr Gates' Robot tax

In an article in QARTS Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, propose that "The robot that takes your job should pay taxes". The issue also got a practical discussion outside of newspapers as the European Parliament rejected a similar proposal on February 16th, 2017

The debate is, however, an interesting one and in many ways an extension of a former blog post of mine; Employment in a technological era (November 14, 2015)

Although I don't personally agree with a lot of what is being presented, it is interesting to see if the various perspectives have merit, and as part of that I'd like to summarize some of my own thoughts on the matter after having spent a bit of time reading up on the various positions.

Starting of with the IFR position quoted in the reuters article on European Parliament rejecting such a tax proposal;

The IFR and others argue that automation and the use of robots create new jobs by increasing productivity, and point to a correlation between robot density and employment in advanced industrial nations, for example in the German car industry.

Seems as close to my own position as most others point out. Introducing a "robot tax" has multiple difficulties, starting with defining what is a robot for the purpose of the tax. Increased productivity by ways of automation can happen in a lot of ways, and one of the most used today is likely, for better and for worse, spreadsheets in desk-based workplaces. At what stage does increased productivity turn into a taxable offense for the company? Incidentally this proposal is in many ways similar to the Investment Tax that is thankfully removed in Norway for the purpose of hindering technological growth, and also mimics the position of Queen Elizabeth mentioned in my previous post on the matter;

"Thou aimest high, Master Lee. Consider thou what the invention could do to my poor subjects. It would assuredly bring to them ruin by depriving them of employment, thus making them beggars"

And here comes a large part of the differences of opinion. While the need for higher intelligence and education has been rising the general population has not necessarily invested in increasing their skills to match it. This causes imbalances in wage distribution, and if a sufficiently high degree of the population becomes unnecessary as part of the workforce due to lack of skills, it can cause further riots and civil war.

The socialistic approach to the issue, instead of fixing the actual underlying issue of increasing the skills of the various individuals and ensuring incensing proper genetic development for a sustainable workforce. That is to say intelligence is a function that takes two arguments, genetic and behavioral. The Lynn-Flynn effect masqueraded the underlying decline of intelligence in society throughout the 20th centuary when not controlling for a change in population IQ distribution, whereby the 21st centuary has demonstrated actual decline to average IQ in advanced economies where, in particular, a greater absence of malnourishment over time has not contributed to increased intelligence.

The approach of restricting opportunities is highly undemocractic, as Alexis de Toqueville states in Democracy in America;

"Democracy extends the sphere of individual freedom, socialism restricts it. Democracy attaches all possible value to each man; socialism makes each man a mere agent, a mere number. Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude."

Or paraphrased, socialists seek equality in outcome, whereby a democracy seeks equality in opportunities. Such slowdown of development, similar to the luddite movements between 1811 and 1816 or by introducing a universal income (rejected in Switzerland, trial basis ongoing in Finland) is nothing but socialism and hinders positive developments in society. The idea of a universal income would be highly supported by George Henry whom in 1879 completed "Progress and poverty: an inquery into cause of industrial depression and of increase of want with increase of wealth" in which he states

The present century has been marked by a prodigious increase in wealth-producing power. The utilization of steam- and electricity, the introduction of improved processes and labor-saving machinery, the greater subdivision and grander scale of production, the wonderful facilitation of exchanges, have multiplied enormously the effectiveness of labor [...] Now, however, we are coming into collision with facts which there can be no mistaking. From all parts of the civilized world come complaints of industrial depression; of labor condemned to involuntary idleness; of capital massed and wasting: of pecuniary distress among business men; of want and suffering and anxiety among the working classes.

There are however scenarios where a "robot tax" can make sense. If the development of AI results in sentient beings, that have rights and liabilities of their own, a taxation similar to human beings would be a natural extension of said rights. Without the rights, a lesson can be learned from Roman times, where it at least should be ensured that owner of enslaved persons (then slaves, but the principle is sound when extending to robots) is responsible for any damage as attributing some kind of legal personality to robots (or slaves) would relieve those who should control them of their responsibilities.

Norwegian government propose access to extended surveillance methods

The Norwegian Government proposed Proposition 68 L (2015-2016) today extending and introducing a wide range of methods for the police to cross the privacy boundry with increased surveillance, including what the Minister of Justice, Progress Party (FrP)'s Anundsen, calls "surveillance closer to the soul".

The possibility to perform telecommunications control in Norway has history back to 1915, however was limited to cases involving national security until 1976. Starting in 1915 the surveillance was restricted to post and telegraph but telephone surveillance was added in December 1950. Now in 2016 the government wants to extend the scope to:

  • "Data reading" is introduced as a term giving the police access to hacking into computers, including adding keyloggers (physical or virtual)
  • Possibility to send silent SMSes to generate telephone traffic. The Norwegian police has already been wildly criticized for illegally using IMSI catchers across, in particular, Oslo in violation with court order and registration requirements. A silent SMS is a message that is not displayed by the phone, but the generated traffic will increase the verbosity information that can be apprehended by the police when the phone company is compelled to turn over data.
  • Take control over email accounts without a court order to ease access to information early in an investigation
  • Physically bug (microphone) private rooms without an actual crime having been committed as a preventive measure.

"Closer to the soul", indeed; if you don't already see the resemblance to Minority Report (2002) you likely want to make it your weekend movie pick. IMDB summarize the Spielberg movie as "In a future where a special police unit is able to arrest murderers before they commit their crimes, an officer from that unit is himself accused of a future murder"

Anundsen argues that you don't get any more access to an individual's thoughts from monitoring what is typed on a computer and potentially never sent, than you get by physically taking control over the person's diaries. Without going into how wrong that argument sounds to begin with, there is of course a difference of awareness of the police physically getting access to a person's diaries or just silently monitoring in the background while the person were to be writing in the diary without knowledge of the police presence.

This adds to a long line of police requests for increased access to information across the globe. Senators in USA wants a new bill to impose fines if operators don't willingly help attacking their own products and Obama is ever reducing security, this time by increasing the scope of use of data collected.

So what can you do to protect yourself in a society where everyone around you is increasingly becoming your enemy? Arstechnica had an interesting post recently titled "Most software already has a 'golden key' backdoor: the system update". If you can't trust the operative system and hardware providers you're lost to begin with. Bill Gates expresses his view on personal information access asIt is no different than [the question of] should anybody ever have been able to tell the phone company to get information, should anybody be able to get at bank records,” Gates said. “There’s no difference between information.” He offered this analogy: “Let’s say the bank had tied a ribbon round the disk drive and said, ‘Don’t make me cut this ribbon because you’ll make me cut it many times.’

So you need a software stack that you can trust, and likely want to audit the source code of, or if using binary builds at least a system that use reproducible builds.

With a relatively trusted software stack, and monitoring any update activity, while making sure that you do update for security issues immediately, of course, the added complexity of encrypted and digitally signed emails comes into question. Personally I quite prefer OpenPGP using the GnuPG implementation, and with the way the world continues to develop I'm tempted to refuse to answer emails from people that sends me emails that aren't following proper email etiquette and are properly signed and encrypted. Phone calls and SMS messages I prefer not to get or take to begin with (we haven't even discussed SS7 in this post). Naturally private keys should only be stored on smart cards and data expected to be sensitive only read on airgapped systems.

It is also curious that Norway is following China in its privacy activity by this act.

Diaspora*: A different social community model

One of the talks on 32C3 titled "A new kid on the block" talked about Diaspora* and the social networking effects required to build alternatives to existing social network structures. Now, I must admit I haven't paid too much attention to Diaspora* in the past, despite it having been around for quite a while, but now I got more curious and set up my own pod to test it a bit, with the added side benefit that I can stop using Hootsuite to publish blog posts to Twitter and Facebook as it can be integrated directly in this service.

So, what is Diaspora? The official website focus on three aspects:

  • Decentralization: Instead of everyone’s data being contained on huge central servers owned by a large organization, local servers (“pods”) can be set up anywhere in the world. You choose which pod to register with - perhaps your local pod - and seamlessly connect with the diaspora* community worldwide.
  • Freedom: You can be whoever you want to be in diaspora*. Unlike some networks, you don’t have to use your real identity. You can interact with whomever you choose in whatever way you want. The only limit is your imagination. diaspora* is also Free Software, giving you liberty to use it as you wish.
  • Privacy: In diaspora* you own your data. You do not sign over any rights to a corporation or other interest who could use it. With diaspora*, your friends, your habits, and your content is your business ... not ours! In addition, you choose who sees what you share, using Aspects.

My own Diaspora page can be seen on Time will show whether that increase my activity on social networks in general. As participating on Diaspora requires access to a pod, if you are an acquaintance of mine and want access to sign up send me a message and I'll arrange for an invite. For others, there are plenty of publicly available pods that can be used, including those in this list.