Is a “Robot Tax” Really an “Innovation Penalty”?

Written for TechCrunch by Steve Cousins, Founder & CEO, Savioke

When Bill Gates recently suggested robots should pay income tax like any other employee, I didn’t immediately disagree. I applaud Gates’ bold thinking to help solve one of society’s biggest upcoming challenges: embracing automation in a way that “lifts all boats” instead of leaving large swaths of society behind.

A robot tax would help offset the reduced revenues flowing into public coffers as machines take some jobs previously held by humans.

However, before we start taxing companies that deploy robotics, let’s first agree on what a robot actually is.

When we think of robots, we typically conjure up images of giant arms building cars on an assembly line, or autonomous delivery vehicles ferrying goods around warehouses. But the classic definition of a robot is fairly simple: a combination of technologies that together sense, evaluate, and act to carry out a defined task.

The problem with this definition is that it’s so broad, it would categorize almost all technology – including most modern household appliances, computers, and smartphones – as robots. So where do we draw the line? Indeed, why single out robots to be taxed and not other technology that increases automation, productivity, or quality?

Is the technology that translates a surgeon’s hand movements into more precise movements of tiny instruments considered a robot? How about an ATM, an automated grocery checkout station, or a refrigerator that tells you when you need milk?

We could narrow the definition of a robot to include only those machines that do tasks once done by a human, but then we’d have to include Microsoft’s vast hardware and software offerings, since computers do things like word processing, transcribing, calculating mathematical formulas, and analyzing data – all of which used to be human tasks.

When you think of all the once-human tasks now done by machines, it quickly becomes clear how difficult it would be to separate certain automation technologies into the  “robot” category.  And if a robot tax was imposed, why wouldn’t a company simply classifying their new automation technology as “computers”, “appliances” or “equipment”?

Of course, implementing a robot tax wouldn’t just be difficult due to the challenge of defining what is and isn’t a robot. It would also be nearly impossible to prove a direct correlation between the implementation of automation technology and the net loss of jobs. In some rare instances, a company might deploy an automation device and then simultaneously lay off a person. But most companies don’t operate like this.

They continually deploy new technologies to improve productivity, laying off some workers while hiring others. In fact, if a robot causes one person to lose a job, perhaps three new people will be hired – one to run the robot and two others because the robot improves overall productivity, allowing for expansion hiring.

In reality, robots, like most automation, help people be more efficient and productive, rather than replace them. That’s been the case for centuries. A study of census data in England and Wales since 1871 found technology created far more jobs than it destroyed during that 140-year period. “Machines will take on more repetitive and laborious tasks, but seem no closer to eliminating the need for human labor than at any time in the last 150 years,” says the Deloitte report.

When Gates talks about a robot tax, in essence, he’s talking about financially penalizing companies that deploy the latest automation technology — a sort of “innovation tax” — which, to me, is a backward tax.

Shouldn’t our government support companies that embrace innovation in an effort to improve productivity and boost revenues? That’s what will make the US economy strong and competitive on a global scale.

Perhaps a better way to ensure that automation improves the lives of all citizens — instead of becoming a wedge that creates a bigger and bigger divide between the haves and have-nots — is to ensure corporations pay tax on their profits.

The more profitable a company becomes due to automation and increased productivity, the more income taxes it should pay into the collective system. Of course, closing loopholes that allow US corporations to dodge taxes will be difficult, but it’s critical to the long-term health of the global economy.

Getting companies to pay their fair share of taxes won’t solve the larger societal challenge that automation will eventually displace low-skilled workers, nor would a robot tax. Instead, governments should focus on using corporate tax revenues to create free or low-cost education programs to prepare people to work alongside automation.

For those unable to find work in tomorrow’s tech-driven society, governments could provide universal basic income or other safety nets for the least-advantaged.

There are no easy answers to the growing divide between rich and poor, which will only accelerate in an automated age that leaves unskilled workers at a distinct disadvantage. But a robot tax is not the answer to this problem.

Relay Robots Now Working for FedEx

Frederick Smith, founder, chairman, president, and CEO of FedEx, unveiled the news today that FedEx is employing multiple Relay robots at its TechConnect repair center in Collierville, TN and a FedEx Office store in Manhattan. Mr. Smith made the announcement and showed off a Relay robot during a presentation to a group of student researchers at the University of Memphis. 

Credit:  The Commercial Appeal, Part of the USA Today Network

FedEx’s TechConnect center, which offers repair and refurbishment of business technology equipment, currently has seven Relay robots operating in the facility.  FedEx's Relay robots have nicknames like Lil' Rico, Falcon, and Area 51. Relay delivers items to technicians in less than a minute within the repair center, which does hundreds of thousands of repairs per year.

A few weeks back, the company's first public-facing Relay robot was deployed into a FedEx Office location in Manhattan. Customers interact with Relay when bringing in mobile devices to be fixed and the robot then delivers those devices to a repair technician on site.

FedEx TechConnect is Savioke’s first customer in the large and growing logistics space. For more information visit the FedEx blog and Savioke's logistics landing page.

This announcement is an exciting step forward for Savioke.  Not only does it connect us to one of the most innovative companies in the world but it demonstrates Relay’s flexibility in indoor delivery solutions across a wide range of industries and uses.

Robots in Hospitality: Five Trends on the Horizon

Reprinted from Hospitality Technology Magazine

There’s no denying it: robots are becoming common helpers in hospitality, showing up in hotels and restaurants around the world. From Japan’s all-robot hotel, to Hilton’s robot concierge, to Savioke’s autonomous delivery robot, Relay, robots that serve hotel staff and guests are a growing trend. Robots are proving their value in restaurants, too, preparing meals, taking orders and even delivering food. Hospitality robots are clearly at a tipping point. They’re now cost-effective to build, are attaining cultural acceptance, and use sophisticated technology to safely live and work among us. But what’s next in this fast-moving field? In this article, Savioke discusses five key robot trends set to emerge in the hospitality sector. 1.  The number of people helped by hospitality robots will double by the end of 2017. Service robots that deliver room service, clean your hotel room, or entertain your kids are becoming more common – and they’ll become even more so in the coming year. As a December 2016 report on from Silicon Valley Robotics association says, robots’ roles in society are moving from “doing dirty, dull, and dangerous work to helping improve the lives of ordinary people.” In the near future, Savioke expects Relay to be joined by other “helper robots” that carry bags, give directions, clean rooms, and perform other low-level tasks that free up hotel staff to spend more time assisting guests. 2.  Robots will create a large number of jobs in hospitality and other sectors. Despite claims that robots will eliminate millions of jobs, they seem to be having the opposite effect. In fact, among hotels that use Relay robot, several have had to hire additional staff due to an increase in occupancy rates attributable to the robot. And it’s not just hotels using robots that will benefit. The robotics market is growing so exponentially fast, there will be huge demand for robot designers, engineers, programmers and business experts. To respond to this demand, higher education institutions have already added new robotics majors that span instruction in engineering, computer science, psychology, and kinesiology. And robots won’t just create jobs for highly-educated people. Service robots will help boost business in hotels, restaurants, retail stores, and other consumer-facing businesses - leading to increased revenues and additional hiring. 3.  Hospitality will be a pioneering industry for human-robot Interaction. Unlike robots on assembly lines or in factories, which are kept in cages for safety and only used by trained technicians, robots in hotels and restaurants must be easy to use and safe for everyone. They must be approachable, non-threatening, and helpful. And they must communicate clearly what they’re doing and where they’re going so people are delighted but never surprised. That’s why current hospitality robots will be a foundation for future robot design, especially for collaborative robots used in human environments. Roboticists will learn which robot features appeal to people - and which make them feel uncomfortable - so they can build robots that have the size, shape, sounds, movement, and personality that appeal to a wide swath of people, even those who’ve never seen a robot before. The best robot designers will also incorporate psychological principles (like empathy and emotional connection) to ensure success. 4.  Robots will be a critical data source. As robots perform tasks, they generate and collect all kinds of interesting data about customer satisfaction, purchase patterns, and other behaviors. Silicon Valley Robotics says, in 2017, robots will become “active mobile big data collectors” that can “unlock data-driven insights with potentially enormous additional business upside by leveraging the ubiquitous connectivity that is being made possible by cloud computing.” Since robots are machines connected to larger IoT networks, they can serve as data collection points as they interact with people or complete their tasks. It’s still early days in using robots for data analytics, but the use of robot-generated data to improve business processes and ROI in the hospitality industry is upon us. 5.  Anxiety about robots will be replaced with feelings of comfort and delight. Many people, particularly in the United States, have a lingering fear about robots, most likely due to the way they’re depicted in science-fiction movies. But that fear will dissipate as robots prove their value in terms of helping improve our lives. Just as ATMs, computers, and smartphones have become a part of everyday life, soon helper robots will just be accepted as tools to increase happiness and productivity and make life easier. The last vestiges of anxiety about robots will subside when people realize their immense value.  With hospitality leading in robot adoption, millions of people staying in hotels and eating in restaurants will soon come into contact with them. And we’ll soon see robots appear in other human environments such as stores, apartment buildings, and hospitals. Acceptance will happen quickly – just as people embraced smartphones seemingly overnight – ensuring that robots move from being novelties to useful, everyday helpers.

There’s no denying it: robots are becoming common helpers in hospitality, showing up in hotels and restaurants around the world. From Japan’s all-robot hotel, to Hilton’s robot concierge, to Savioke’s autonomous delivery robot, Relay, robots that serve hotel staff and guests are a growing trend. Robots are proving their value in restaurants, too, preparing meals, taking orders and even delivering food.

Hospitality robots are clearly at a tipping point. They’re now cost-effective to build, are attaining cultural acceptance, and use sophisticated technology to safely live and work among us. But what’s next in this fast-moving field? In this article, Savioke discusses five key robot trends set to emerge in the hospitality sector.

1.  The number of people helped by hospitality robots will double by the end of 2017. Service robots that deliver room service, clean your hotel room, or entertain your kids are becoming more common – and they’ll become even more so in the coming year. As a December 2016 report on from Silicon Valley Robotics association says, robots’ roles in society are moving from “doing dirty, dull, and dangerous work to helping improve the lives of ordinary people.” In the near future, Savioke expects Relay to be joined by other “helper robots” that carry bags, give directions, clean rooms, and perform other low-level tasks that free up hotel staff to spend more time assisting guests.

2.  Robots will create a large number of jobs in hospitality and other sectors. Despite claims that robots will eliminate millions of jobs, they seem to be having the opposite effect. In fact, among hotels that use Relay robot, several have had to hire additional staff due to an increase in occupancy rates attributable to the robot. And it’s not just hotels using robots that will benefit. The robotics market is growing so exponentially fast, there will be huge demand for robot designers, engineers, programmers and business experts. To respond to this demand, higher education institutions have already added new robotics majors that span instruction in engineering, computer science, psychology, and kinesiology. And robots won’t just create jobs for highly-educated people. Service robots will help boost business in hotels, restaurants, retail stores, and other consumer-facing businesses - leading to increased revenues and additional hiring.

3.  Hospitality will be a pioneering industry for human-robot Interaction. Unlike robots on assembly lines or in factories, which are kept in cages for safety and only used by trained technicians, robots in hotels and restaurants must be easy to use and safe for everyone. They must be approachable, non-threatening, and helpful. And they must communicate clearly what they’re doing and where they’re going so people are delighted but never surprised. That’s why current hospitality robots will be a foundation for future robot design, especially for collaborative robots used in human environments. Roboticists will learn which robot features appeal to people - and which make them feel uncomfortable - so they can build robots that have the size, shape, sounds, movement, and personality that appeal to a wide swath of people, even those who’ve never seen a robot before. The best robot designers will also incorporate psychological principles (like empathy and emotional connection) to ensure success.

4.  Robots will be a critical data source. As robots perform tasks, they generate and collect all kinds of interesting data about customer satisfaction, purchase patterns, and other behaviors. Silicon Valley Robotics says, in 2017, robots will become “active mobile big data collectors” that can “unlock data-driven insights with potentially enormous additional business upside by leveraging the ubiquitous connectivity that is being made possible by cloud computing.” Since robots are machines connected to larger IoT networks, they can serve as data collection points as they interact with people or complete their tasks. It’s still early days in using robots for data analytics, but the use of robot-generated data to improve business processes and ROI in the hospitality industry is upon us.

5.  Anxiety about robots will be replaced with feelings of comfort and delight. Many people, particularly in the United States, have a lingering fear about robots, most likely due to the way they’re depicted in science-fiction movies. But that fear will dissipate as robots prove their value in terms of helping improve our lives. Just as ATMs, computers, and smartphones have become a part of everyday life, soon helper robots will just be accepted as tools to increase happiness and productivity and make life easier. The last vestiges of anxiety about robots will subside when people realize their immense value.

 With hospitality leading in robot adoption, millions of people staying in hotels and eating in restaurants will soon come into contact with them. And we’ll soon see robots appear in other human environments such as stores, apartment buildings, and hospitals. Acceptance will happen quickly – just as people embraced smartphones seemingly overnight – ensuring that robots move from being novelties to useful, everyday helpers.