Robots are owned. Owners are taxed. Internet services cost Information.

As I often recount, I got involved in AI ethics because I was dumbfounded that people attributed moral patiency to (thought I shouldn't unplug) Cog, the humanoid robot, when in fact it wasn't plugged in, and didn't work (this was 1993-1994).  The processors of its brain couldn't talk to each other, they weren't properly grounded [earthed].  Just because it was shaped like a human and they'd watched Star Wars, passers by thought it deserved more ethical consideration than they gave homeless people, who were actually people.

Cela ne veut pas une personne.
This picture was taken before Cog's brain was earthed.

I started writing AI ethics papers way more frequently when I thought the administration of George W. Bush was trying to use Ron Arkin to do what Bush had done in Abu Ghraib – blame pawns for despicable policy.  Not that robots could ever be as culpable as privates in the military, but neither are responsible for creating the context of such vast abuse by power.

Now there's a new moral hazard caused by faulty moral reasoning and transhumanists desperate quest for power and immortality.  Here today when all my social medial icons are showing the EU flag to support the "Remain in the EU" campaign in the UK, the EU parliament has come up with headlines about  recognising robots as persons in order to tax them.

Because I'd been asked by both the UK government and media, and now in the context of Princeton's Center for Information Technology Policy, I've been doing research for over a year looking into whether automation causes economic inequality.  So far I am absolutely unconvinced that there's a significant relationship.  I think inequality comes down to fiscal policy.

Period of low income inequality 1940-1980

The last time we had this great of inequality (and its associated political polarization) was just before and after World War I.  AI hadn't even been developed then; Turing was just conceiving of computation and algorithms.  Maybe the horror of the wars, or the economic crash of 1929, or the threat of communism or the unions – something lead policy makers to create a context where inequality was kept low and wages kept pace with productivity.  Around 1978 that changed.  I suspect it's because policy makers lost their fear of the USSR, because the USSR's amazing economic recovery from Tsarist Russia finally plateaued around then, but I'm the only one saying that (so far.)   Anyway, something started allowing the elite to cash in again,  and here we are.

Note that all these figures about how wages no longer track productivity start in 1945.  That's because before 1945 they didn't.  1945-1978 was the exception, though one we should return to.
Period of wages tracking productivity: 1945-1978. Coincidence?

Blaming robots is insane, and taxing the robots themselves is insane.  This is insane because no robot comes spontaneously into being.  Robots are all constructed, and the ones that have impact on the economy are constructed by the rich.

I blame economists for not keeping up with what wealth even is.  You can't say that Google et al gives everything away for free.  They pay people for providing information, and that wage should be taxed.  Or better, the wealth created out of that labour should be taxed.  If economists can't keep up with where the wealth comes from, who cares?  We can see the wealth estimated in a corporation's worth.  Let's just tax that directly, and stop worrying about semantics.

The point of this blogpost is that declaring robots to be persons so you can tax them makes no sense at all.  There's no motivation for it, and it creates a moral hazard to dump responsibility into a pit that you cannot sue or punish.  Yet for some reason someone has put a draft plan about that through the European Parliament.  Hopefully we can head this off.

Acknowledgements: that brilliant idea to tax market cap came to me via Rob Calhoun. The realisation that inequality might be causing the even larger problem of political polarisation and social instability came from a talk and the work of Nolan McCarty. We are working on a paper concerning the causal relationship between these which will be presented at APSA in August. Update 6 December: the paper with McCarty still isn't finished, but here's the APSA poster we presented, Polarization and Inequality: Towards a Mechanistic Account.  For more on why robots aren't legal persons, see that 3 December blogpost.

Note: this blogpost is from June 2016.  For more recent posts on these topics, click a topic label.