San Francisco Might Soon Tax Robots, but Who Does It Benefit?

As automation continues to displace human labor, who will pay the price?

9. 6. 17 by Dom Galeon
Image by Pixabay

When Robots Work

When Microsoft co-founder (now billionaire philanthropist) Bill Gates spoke about a robot tax, San Francisco city supervisor Jane Kim heard him — or, at least, she read about it. Now, Kim has been pushing for a robot tax in the home state of Silicon Valley, and she’s been up and about talking to the leaders of the tech industry, various labor groups throughout the state, and to public policy makers figuring out how best to implement a robot tax.

But what does it mean to tax robots? For the ordinary worker, the tax one pays the government gets spent on various programs that (ideally) ends up servicing the tax-paying individual — be it as an infrastructural project, through social services, or even as salary for public servants.

A robot tax, on the other hand, won’t end up in robot social welfare. Instead, it would benefit the ordinary human worker whose job was taken over by an intelligent machine. For every human job lost to robot labor, companies have to pay the same amount of tax and social security that person was due. These could then be used to educate people for better work specifically allocated for human labor.

A Potential Solution

Essentially, the robot tax is security for the displaced human worker. “I really do think automation is going to be one of the biggest issues around income inequality,” Kim told ABC News. “It’s not inherently a bad thing, but it will concentrate wealth, and it’s going to drive further inequity if you don’t prepare for it now.”

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But not everyone shares this idea. Some, like U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, see a robot tax as a potential deterrent for businesses looking to opt for more efficient labor via automation. Ross previously said he’s not for holding back technological advances, worrying that if the U.S. doesn’t pick up on intelligent automation, the rest of the world will.

Is it really that bad to tax robots? Perhaps not. As Gates pointed out, it’s a way to transition towards automated technologies. The human worker can’t be left behind, and a robot tax would make sure that he isn’t. Together with some form of basic income, a robot tax might just be what we need for technology to diversify its application in society, without sending humans up the river sans paddle.

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