Robotics

San Francisco Official Calls for Study of a Tax on Job-Stealing Robots

Jane Kim, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, thinks it’s time to consider a statewide “robot tax” that would help workers displaced by automation.

Automated robotic arms assemble parts of a Volkswagen Crafter van in the newly opened Volkswagen AG manufacturing plant in Bialezyce near Wrzesnia, Poland, on December 12th, 2016. | Wojtek Laski/Getty Images
Automated robotic arms assemble parts of a Volkswagen Crafter van in the newly opened Volkswagen AG manufacturing plant in Bialezyce near Wrzesnia, Poland, on December 12th, 2016. | Wojtek Laski/Getty Images

Click through some news headlines these days and you'll find plenty of anxiety about workplace automation despite widely varying interpretations among academics of how much of an impact robots are likely to have on job numbers.

But one San Francisco politician is hoping to head off any mass labor disruption by instituting a “robot tax” on companies that displace human workers by automating their production lines.

San Francisco supervisor Jane Kim launched a campaign last week called the Jobs of the Future Fund to study the feasibility of a statewide tax on robots operating in a job where a human once earned a paycheck. Income generated from the tax would be used for “education, retraining, and targeted investments in new industries,” according to a website describing the campaign.

“Technology can be a wonderful thing that improves lives and helps workers do more,” the campaign site states. “However, the benefits of technology are not evenly distributed. If a handful of people reap all the rewards while millions more lose their jobs, that’s a societal problem we need to deal with. This initiative simply asks those who are reaping those rewards to give back to help displaced workers find better opportunities.”

The campaign aims to foster discussion on the final language of a robot tax referendum, which would appear on a future California ballot.

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A robot tax is not a particularly new idea. Bill Gates made waves in February when he suggested a robot tax might slow the pace of automation and fund alternative employment for displaced workers. If humans are required to pay an income tax, so the theory goes, then robots ought to as well. But since robots don't file with the IRS, employers should cough up the tax.

Switzerland recently rejected a robot tax proposal, but South Korea is making moves to approximate a robot tax by limiting corporate tax-incentive programs on automated industries in order to make up for lost income tax from human workers. 

Kim sits on San Francisco’s 11-member Board of Supervisors and represents low-income areas like the Civic Center as well as the city’s South of Market area, which is a hub for tech startups. In this way, she presides over constituencies among the most vulnerable to shifts in the labor market and most likely to profit from tech-driven innovation.

"I do think it's important that we're the city that looks at this issue, because we're at the center of the technological revolution,” Kim told Business Insider in May. “We have access to so many academics, researchers, and tech companies that can help us brainstorm and think about this issue."

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