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Bill Gates wants to tax robots, but one robot maker says that's 'as intelligent' as taxing software

Bill Gates suggested in a recent interview that robots should be taxed when they are doing the role of a human worker, but the CEO of a leading automation firm took issue with that idea.

ABB Group CEO Ulrich Spiesshofer, speaking Saturday with CNBC on the sidelines of the China Development Forum in Beijing, suggested that many have the wrong idea about robots' place in the economy, and he took on the Microsoft co-founder's tax proposition.

"Taxing robotics is as intelligent as taxing software," he said. "They are both productivity tools. You should not tax the tools, you should tax the outcome that's coming."

Robotics, he explained, is one of the fastest growing technologies in the world, and it makes a "significant contribution" to society by helping to make work safer and less dull.

"If you look at economies with the lowest unemployment rates in the world and correlate it with robotics: Germany, Japan, South Korea have the highest robotics rates with more than 300 robots per 10,000 workers, and they have the lowest unemployment rates," Spiesshofer said. "So robotization and automation, wealth and prosperity go hand-in-hand."

Photo: ABB

"It drives competitiveness, it drives productivity and it creates jobs."

Asked about the global wave of political populism spurred in part by concerns about unemployment, Spiesshofer said it will be important to educate people about robotics' benefits.

"We have more people employed today in the world than ever before. We have less people below the poverty line than ever before. And robotization, automation, has made a major contribution to that," he said. "If we do this wisely going forward and address the challenges and opportunities of the fourth industrial revolution in a good way, we will also succeed this time."

As for his company, Spiesshofer said its transformation "is progressing according to plan," but the markets "are highly uncertain" this year.

He emphasized that note of caution, saying that his ambition is to maintain a growth pattern while carefully watching global developments.

"If you take the global markets, we still have a lot of political uncertainty, we have elections coming in Europe, which is one element of uncertainty. We have a change in commodity pricing: Steel, copper, silver have gone up in pricing, and the impact of what that does to demand is at the moment not yet fully clear," he said.

"So what we need to do is we need to drive full force for all the growth opportunities that are out there with our technology," he said. "But we're managing cost in a very careful way to make sure we safeguard the results of our group."

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