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Voice-controlled devices shift tech industry

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USAToday Columns
TECHnalysis Research president Bob O'Donnell writes a regular column in the Tech section of USAToday.com approximately once every two weeks and those columns are posted here. These columns are also often reposted on other sites, including MSN and other publishing partners of USAToday.


March 7, 2017
It may be time for a tech tax

By Bob O'Donnell

FOSTER CITY, Calif. — In its best form, technology has brought much of the world closer together and created great opportunities. Recently, though, it seems that same technology is also creating a new type of digital divide—one that’s centered more on the economic disparity being caused by some tech advances.

In order to address that divide, I wonder if it’s time that we start to consider some kind of tax on technologies that potentially eliminate traditional jobs. Clearly, others feel this way, as both Bill Gates and Mark Cuban have recently made comments on the topic.

Obviously, this a very controversial move and would raise several big potential questions. To be clear, I don’t think it’s realistic to try and “save” jobs that, whether certain people want to admit or not, are going to disappear. I’m also most assuredly not a Luddite, who thinks we can (or should) walk away from the incredible capabilities that new technologies have enabled, despite the challenges that often accompany them.

Despite the wealth and opportunities that tech has created for some, however, we have to acknowledge it’s also created enormous economic gaps that stand in stark contrast to the many people who aren’t in, or don’t care to be in tech. The disparity is particularly painful for those whose employment may have been (or may soon be) negatively impacted or even eliminated by technology developments, such as automation and robotics. Recent discussions about the even larger impact that artificial intelligence (AI) and related technologies could have in “obsoleting” many current jobs only makes the potential problem worse.

Of course, there will be many who quickly (and rightly) point out that this is just the way societies evolve. We’ve seen these kinds of technology and employment-driven societal changes in the past, and we’ve adjusted and adapted accordingly. Fair enough.

The question is, however, are things different this time? While it’s impossible to say without the benefit of historical hindsight, it does seem that the pace of changes driven by technology is faster, thereby making these changes harder to absorb at a human scale.

Even if we eventually discover that things aren’t really different this time, it’s still important to remember that some of the changes and social adaptions from the past were driven by changes in laws and regulations.

Basic observation of modern America combined with a bit of common sense shows that, as a society, we do create laws and, yes, taxes designed to encourage certain behaviors and discourage others, as well as support economic initiatives designed to help the overall good of society.

So, back to the original question, do we need to think about creating economic initiatives, through some sort of taxation, that can positively offset some of the negative impacts of technology? Obviously, there is no clear or easy answer, but it’s an issue we need to start pondering.

Some will argue that taxing technologies will put unfair impediments to their adoption and discourage technological evolution. I understand that perspective, but let’s be honest. If there’s an industry that can afford to be just less than ridiculously successful, it’s the tech industry. At the end of the day, it’s really just a fairness issue. Given how much wealth tech has been created, isn’t it time to give some of that back for the overall good of society?

Specifically, I’m wondering if it would make sense to use taxes on certain technologies or products to create funds for re-educating and retraining working adults to find employment in new fields. It’s generally accepted that trying to artificially maintain jobs or industries that technologies have (or will) eliminate is not a viable long-term solution, so retraining people to work either in tech or other fields seems to be the best option.

A few tech industry leaders have suggested that people whose jobs are eliminated by technology should receive some kind of universal general assistance—essentially a modern form of welfare from what I can tell—implying there’s essentially no hope for them. Not only is this degrading and insulting to many people, it ignores basic human dignity and the essential right to work that is at the heart of our human existence.

Tech era VA bill
Instead, just as the VA bills of the late 1940s and ‘50s enabled veterans to get an education and offered at least the hope of a productive job, I believe there could be a modern equivalent that could be used for technologically displaced workers.

In theory, the same ideas could even be applied to some infrastructure funding. For example, what if there was a fee/tax that autonomous transportation companies had to pay for every car they put on the road (and which potentially displaced, say, a taxi driver or truck driver)? Since the vehicles used by these services would theoretically be on the road more frequently and, therefore, make more use of them, it seems fair that they should pay for that use.

These are just a few suggestions for possible technology taxation options and certainly many more are possible. The key point, though, is that the tech industry needs to do a bit of soul-searching about how it can drive some positive societal changes, even if it does have an impact (likely small in the big picture) on companies' economic bottom line. Given the enormous size and expected future growth of tech, it just seems like the right thing to do.

Here’s a link to the original column: http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/columnist/2017/03/07/time-for-tech-tax/98658762/

USA TODAY columnist Bob O'Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, a market research and consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. His clients are major technology firms including Microsoft, HP, Dell, and Qualcomm. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.