Should we tax robots? SF supervisor exploring idea

The robots are coming? That’s fine. Tell them the taxes are coming.

OK, not just yet. But people are thinking about it, including in San Francisco, where Supervisor Jane Kim is working to create a task force to explore taxing robots.

“I’m looking to address massive job displacement,” Kim said in a telephone interview with SiliconBeat this week. “A robot tax could be one vehicle to generate revenue.”

Besides the real-life examples in the Bay Area, such as robot baristas or robots delivering burritos, there are studies galore about how automation is already taking some jobs.

In fact, more than half of 314 tech leaders who participated in a survey released Wednesday by the Consumer Technology Association said they thought that “some or most job functions will be automated in the next five years.”

A new study by the Pew Research Center published Wednesday listed the many jobs that have already been affected by automation to some degree, or even completely. They include retail workers, lawyers, journalists, dermatologists and more.

So more people are talking about taxing robots.

“If you can take the labor that used to do the thing automation replaces, and financially and training-wise and fulfillment-wise have that person go off and do these other things, then you’re net ahead,” Bill Gates told Quartz earlier this year. “But you can’t just give up that income tax, because that’s part of how you’ve been funding that level of human workers.

“People should be figuring it out,” Gates said. “It is really bad if people overall have more fear about what innovation is going to do than they have enthusiasm.”

San Francisco Supervisor Jane Kim. (Luke Thomas via Jane Kim’s office)

Kim said San Francisco “has the fastest-growing income gap in the country,” and that automation could worsen it. She is meeting with labor unions and has had talks with people in the tech industry as she tries to get a discussion going about a possible robot tax and other ideas that would help alleviate the pain from a massive loss of jobs. She has also approached academics from UC Berkeley.

In addition, the San Francisco controller’s office is working on a report about the issue that could be made public in June, Kim said.

“I’m trying to bring the best minds together,” she said, adding that the Bay Area has the “intellectual resources” to tackle the problem.

Kim says she’s heard the opposition: The robotics industry and others say such a tax penalizes or could hinder innovation. A robot-tax plan has already failed in Europe this year.

What is a robot, anyway? When asked about what level of automation would be taxed if San Francisco were to enact a robot tax, Kim responded that that would be among the things that a task force would discuss. She said it would be important to differentiate between potentially life-saving automation and technology that merely automates mundane tasks.

Kim, who represents the economically diverse San Francisco district that includes South of Market, Mission Bay, the Tenderloin, Civic Center, Treasure Island and Yerba Buena Island, also stressed that a robot tax is just one possible revenue source that could help provide universal basic income, job retraining or investment in public education.

“It’s important that we balance the positives of innovation with some of the negative consequences, which is massive job loss,” she said.


Photo: The Knightscope security robot patrols the grounds of Stanford Shopping Center on May 25, 2016, in Palo Alto, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)



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  • math4fun

    The government types jack up employment taxes, raise the minimum wage, etc. And now that employers try to reduce costs by using automation, government taxes this as well. Watch out, the next thing they will do is pass laws that all jobs that can be done by humans, must be done by humans, no exceptions.

    • Zephyr McGregor

      Nope that won’t ever happen. Well even if there are some people who opposes automation and robots, governments and other top level organisations won’t listen to this because if the U.S want to keep up their competition with other developed countries out there robots and automation is a must, and the U.S or any other developed country in this world hates to be out performed in economically.

      These people who are against deporting illegals and limiting immigration will soon find themselves a reason to stop being against, and when this happen even if there are still some (hopefully) who are against changing the mid 19’s immigration system, the government backed by top technological organization (some who are against limiting immigration also) will obviously turn a blind eye on those protests and will continue to eradicate immigration system, this cannot be avoided anymore.

      People will obviously change their attitudes on immigration to hostility when 30% to 40% of jobs gets wiped out.

  • Zephyr McGregor

    This will fail for now but will succed when majority of jobs are done by robots and automation, and the only solution for now will be eradicating immigration, U.S should stop the immigration flow otherwise unemployment level and economic equility will worsen as the pace of automation is high enough to fill in 40% of the current jobs completely, and the remaining jobs could be partially filed by 25% or more.

    Whether immigration advocates among other people like to keep bringing in people from outside, immigration to developed world will soon be eradicated to save jobs for citizens of that country, this will happen soon.