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Can Mankind Survive the Onslaught of the Robots?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

PARIS -- It's often by listening for the vibrations in the muck that one can pick up on the big moral conflicts looming ahead. And this one's a doozy, involving nothing less than the next industrial revolution.

Speaking at the World Government Summit in Dubai last month, SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk suggested that humans and machines are likely to merge in the future.

"Over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence," Musk said.

He noted that such a merger between man and machine would enable humans to maintain control over artificial intelligence.

"Some high-bandwidth interface to the brain will be something that helps achieve a symbiosis between human and machine intelligence and maybe solves the control problem and the usefulness problem," Musk said.

Musk cited the example of driverless cars, which threaten the livelihoods of taxi drivers. The notion that we may soon be chauffeured around by robot cars doesn't seem so far-fetched when you consider that Uber has already disrupted a taxi industry that has downloaded onto consumers the costs of a government-imposed monopoly, unionization and high employer taxes.

Much has been made of the "sharing economy" and the digital entrepreneurs who are disrupting the status quo in various industries, but an even more significant revolution lies ahead as technology improves and an increasing number of workers can be replaced by robot labor.

In recent years, attack drones have often substituted for U.S. Special Forces in military operations. While combat deaths have decreased as a result, the increased reliance on technology has often left these warriors on the sidelines. Robots are now performing surgeries in place of trained surgeons. And Japan has been developing "carebots" for elderly care.

French presidential candidate Benoit Hamon of the Socialist Party has proposed a universal basic income of 750 euros a month, partly under the guise of protecting workers as they are increasingly displaced by robots. True to socialist form, Hamon has also proposed a robot tax to pay for it: Revenue generated by robots and automated systems would be taxed. Hamon has cited the example of automated checkouts in supermarkets, which in many cases have replaced cashiers.

Just thinking of the checkout example makes it difficult not to take the robots' side in this showdown. Supermarkets in Paris that don't have automated checkouts are almost always understaffed, resulting in lines so long that I've more than once abandoned my basket to try my luck elsewhere. This is the sort of thing that happens when the state forces employers to pay exceedingly high taxes on employee salaries. Hiring becomes a burden that one seeks to minimize.

Hamon's plan to pay everyone a monthly salary for doing nothing raises significant moral issues. Granted, the relationship between work value and earnings isn't always logical. The fact that entertainers and pro athletes earn more money than surgeons is a classic example. However, the current system is better than the communist alternative in which there is no correlation between effort and reward. In such a system, there's less incentive to innovate, produce or achieve, because a basic level of comfort is guaranteed.

The two extremes captured in a snapshot: capitalist Musk's idea of merging man and machine to achieve superhuman capacity vs. socialist Hamon's idea of letting man spend the day watching television while machine does all the work.

Between these two extremes lies the human being who exists today, who wants to continue to strive to fulfill human potential without either robotic modifications or government handouts. How can modern man ensure his own survival? It may come down to the choices made by different countries. Western nations can't continue to insist on burdening employers with absurdly high taxes to pay for government waste and mismanagement.

Last month, the European Parliament voted in favor of developing EU-wide rules for artificial intelligence and robots. Nevertheless, a conservative coalition within European Parliament rejected a proposal for a robot tax and made it clear that it doesn't view robots as a potential threat to human labor.

"I wish to make one thing clear: robots are not humans and never will be," said Therese Comodini of the European People's Party, the European Parliament's largest voting bloc. "No matter how autonomous and self-learning they become they do not attain the characteristics of a living human being."

While a purely moral stand is admirable, reforming socialist economic policies by reducing the tax burden on businesses and workers is just as critical if humans are to have any hope of surviving this new industrial revolution.

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