Opinion

Opinion | Joseph E. Aoun

Millions of jobs will soon be done by robots. And they don’t pay taxes

Northeastern researchers performed advanced research and development on Valkyrie, NASA’s humanoid robot prototype, pictured here at UMass Lowell on April 6, 2016.
Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University
Northeastern researchers performed advanced research and development on Valkyrie, NASA’s humanoid robot prototype, pictured here at UMass Lowell on April 6, 2016.

Like an argument about fire safety in the midst of a rising flood, there’s a jarring disconnect in Washington’s tax reform debate. While lawmakers battle over familiar grounds of supply-side economics and widening inequality, they’re ignoring the game-changing fact that artificial intelligence and automation will wipe out millions of jobs — up to 50 percent in the coming decades, according to some studies.

Despite the blithe dismissals of some senior government officials, the AI revolution isn’t decades away. Automated trucks are making deliveries, software is picking stocks and interpreting medical results. These are only the first drops in the AI tsunami about to hit our economy. Last June, a survey of researchers from Oxford and Yale predicted that within 10 years, machines will be better than human beings at writing high school essays, driving, and working retail. And while the rise of the robots will inevitably launch new professions, it will exact a steep near-term price in unemployment, income loss, and inequality.

Lawmakers would be wise to note, too, that robot employees don’t pay taxes, nor do they purchase consumer products. Unless government leaders take decisive action soon, we won’t be arguing over how to slice the existing economic pie but about what to do with the crumbs.

Advertisement

Other countries are taking steps to anticipate the robot future. China’s manufacturers are rapidly automating everything in sight, while its government forges partnerships with tech firms to accelerate AI development and educate the next generation of AI researchers. Conversely, South Korea wants to decrease tax deductions for heavily automated companies — a move echoed by Bill Gates. British Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has called for raising corporate taxes to pay for educating workers displaced by technology. These are different prescriptions reflecting different values and philosophies, but at least they represent action in the face of the AI revolution.

Get Arguable with Jeff Jacoby in your inbox:
From the Globe's must-read columnist, an extra offering each week of opinion and ideas.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

We cannot be oblivious to the facts. The United States needs a far-sighted national strategy, a map for navigating the coming sea change.

The answer to greater artificial intelligence is greater human intelligence. In times of uncertainty and disruption, our guiding star should be education. As machines continue to improve, we can too. From the Industrial Revolution to the digital one, education has been our

way to adapt to changing economics. Displaced farmers learned to work machinery; displaced machinists learned the ways of the corporate office. Education is how we update our operating systems.

It’s essential that we rethink what it means to have a “useful” education. People of all ages will need literacy in technology and data, but also immersion in the human subjects that elevate us above the most brilliant machines — nourishing our empathy, cultural agility, and creativity. We should provide all students with experiential opportunities that set their learning loose in the uncontrolled, unpredictable world in which humans exist, exercising their minds in the playing field of real life.

Advertisement

Just as important, we should make a societal investment in lifelong learning for everyone. This means broadening access to higher education at every stage of one’s working life, placing the tools for reinvention into every employee’s hands. Colleges should serve the teenager out of high school, but also deliver ongoing education to everyone from the mid-career professional to the highest echelons of the C-suite. Lifelong learning needs to be part of higher education’s core mission, not a second-class enterprise.

The current tax bill discourages investment in higher education. This is a dangerous message for today’s global economy, in which American graduates compete against the entire world’s best and brightest. It’s an even more pernicious message for a future in which we’re competing with intelligent machines.

Rather than undermining higher education, let’s place it at the fore of a national strategy that helps all Americans adapt to automation. Let’s enact policies that incentivize educational innovation and encourage lifelong learning by opening the doors of colleges to working professionals and other nontraditional students.

We cannot delay the arrival of brilliant technologies, but we can learn to live and work with them. The solution is education.

Joseph E. Aoun is president of Northeastern University and author of “Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence.”