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Robot tax not feasible for Australia

Data61 CEO Adrian Turner says Australia needs to reskill workers rather than implement a robot tax

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Australia does not need a robot tax, but it needs to prepare for a rising tide of automation, according to the head of the country’s top technology research body.

“I don’t think a robot tax makes sense or is feasible,” said Adrian Turner, CEO of Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation’s Data61 digital research network. He was responding to Microsoft founder Bill Gates’ recommendation that a tax be levied on companies that replace human workers with robots.

Turner agreed that automation will displace jobs and drive operational efficiencies, resulting in structural changes in the economy that needed to be planned for.

Australia’s workforce would need to be reskilled so people “don’t get left behind”, Turner said, adding that the nation cannot turn its back on automation despite widespread fear regarding the looming change.

While the Australian government can play a role in steering that change through policies, Turner said transformation efforts should be driven by the industry.

According to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (Ceda), up to 40% of the country’s workforce – or more than five million jobs – could be replaced by automation by 2035.

However, Toby Walsh, a research group leader at Data61 and a professor at the University of New South Wales, said Ceda’s numbers might be inflated.

Citing findings from his research, Walsh said anticipated job losses from automation are usually more pessimistic, and are around 25% higher than what experts in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics predict.

That said, Walsh noted that experts are not suggesting that automation would not have a big impact on jobs. “Clearly it will, and people such as taxi drivers need to start thinking about the future,” he said.

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During a recent visit to Australia, Don Schuerman, chief technology of Pegasystems, said there has been enthusiasm for a new class of intelligent platforms, particularly among financial institutions.

However, he said workforce intelligence on its own will not drive business transformation. Instead, it will drive continuous improvement, noting that technology had been automating human work for generations, making people more efficient and effective.

Schuerman said Australian companies are keen to use technologies to improve engagements with customers and streamline and simplify processes, with AI and robotics augmenting human capability rather than replacing people.

For example, Pegasystems’ unified workplace intelligence, customer service and sales automation applications can help to optimise a worker’s performance by analysing anonymised data from employee desktops using pattern matching techniques.

Earlier in 2017, pizza chain Domino’s Australia rolled out a chatbot to take orders from customers on its website and mobile app, freeing workers to focus on making pizzas. The technology could also be used to advise customers and upsell products in future.

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