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From robots to digital workers

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One of the ongoing debates in the world of RPA (robotic process automation) has to do with terminology. Currently, most RPA tools are referred to as bots; a few years ago, they were described as robots. Now, more firms are using the term “digital workers.” On the surface, it may seem to be semantics. Still, this naming progression from robot to digital worker puts a spotlight (albeit an unintentional and unwanted one) on the role, importance, and increasing controversy surrounding enterprise automation.

I think the term digital worker is a pretty accurate one to use, as these tools replace the role of a human worker, or, in many instances, multiple human workers, in the workplace. And, whether we like to admit it or not, that is why people deploy automation tools, and it always has been. The declarations that no humans will lose their jobs due to automation (“because it will free workers’ time for more exciting tasks!”) is, and always has been, hogwash. That reality is not lost on those who are laid off. That harsh truth is also now coming to the attention of politicians and the public at large. The latter don’t want to lose their jobs, nor do the former want their constituents to lose their jobs, and, just as (if not more) importantly, they don’t want to see a loss of tax revenue. Human workers are taxed; digital workers are not. Human workers expect to have rights, time off, and to be treated fairly and paid appropriately. Automation tools work 24/7 without pay.

AI and automation technology are now used to manage, supervise, and hire and fire people. Recently, there has been a blowup in California regarding using AI to manage shifts, monitor productivity, set production quotas, and (allegedly) deny workers bathroom breaks. Given the title of this column, I am clearly all in favor of innovation and change—but only as long as it’s ethical. Though there is plenty of innovation to go around, there is far too little in the way of ethics. The fact is, though, the lack of ethical approaches to automation is, at the very least, going to be challenged far more openly and fiercely moving forward, particularly as automation drives deeper into professional, well-paid, white-collar jobs.

Issues for debate

There is some talk of taxing digital workers, which seems logical, if incredibly unpopular with those who use digital workers. As far back as 2017, South Korea brought in a tax for bots, and governments worldwide are looking at ways to fix their tax-and job-loss situations through taxing the use of bots or increasing corporate taxes to firms that automate with bots.

Taxing digital workers is not a popular topic to raise in our industry for self-evident reasons. But I think it is likely that this will start to emerge as a critical policy discussion topic in coming election cycles over the next few years. Governments typically move slowly, so digital-worker taxes are unlikely to come any time soon. But a broader and more public discussion on the merits of such a tax may be one of the things that will cut across the political divide. Society as a whole relies on the tax revenue generated by workers, so the argument goes that “workers,” regardless of their digital or human status, should be taxed. Few, other than corporations or technology vendors that provide automation tools, would find fault with such an approach.

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