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article imageSan Francisco could start taxing robots to save jobs

By James Walker     Aug 25, 2017 in Technology
San Francisco lawmakers are considering a "robot tax" to help protect jobs against automation. Although fully autonomous digital workers are still some way off, leaders are beginning to think seriously about the potential for mass unemployment.
The idea of taxing robots has previously been pushed forward by tech visionaries including Microsoft founder Bill Gates. This week, San Francisco lawmaker Jane Kim broached the subject too, pointing out that robots could have to pay taxes as a substitute for human income tax and to prevent unprecedented unemployment.
In an interview with WIRED, Kim said she was inspired to act after hearing Gates' comments in February. Gates proposed an "income tax" for robots to prevent local governments losing money as a consequence of human workers. Kim's now meeting with business leaders and city officials to start a discussion on the economic and social disruption caused by automation.
There's roadblocks to surmount before a tax could be implemented. The most prominent issue is one of terminology: people can't agree on what defines a "robot." There's also a debate to be resolved about when automation crosses from a productivity booster to a negative source of job displacement.
"We're still working on what defines a robot and what defines job displacement," Kim said to WIRED. "And so announcing the opening of the campaign committee is going to also allow us to have discussions throughout the state [of California] in terms of what the actual measure would look like."
According to the Jobs of the Future Fund, autonomous machines could create unemployment of up to 47 percent over the next several decades. This is almost twice as high as the 25 percent peak during the Great Depression. According to the Fund, soaring unemployment caused by automation would be a "national crisis" and lead to social disaster. Homelessness and crime would skyrocket.
One way of applying the robot tax could involve targeting only the firms making the most from automation. Multinationals who are using machines in direct lieu of humans would be the most heavily taxed under this proposal. Smaller companies who only rely on robots to automate tedious tasks would pay a lower fee, protecting local economies. Alternatively, taxes on employment could be reduced, making employing humans more attractive to growing firms.
The idea of a robot tax reflects the lingering concerns about the automated future. Although people are generally appreciative of the potential productivity improvements, real fears of a lack of fulfilling work persist. A recent survey of millennials found the next generation of leaders are anxious to avoid being forced to retrain and work in "sterile" environments, underneath machines.
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