Innovation

San Francisco Official Wants Tax On Robots That Put People Out Of Work

Cobots Will Shape Automation

With a growing number of automated machines performing jobs and tasks that could eliminate jobs, one San Francisco official is pushing a statewide “tax” in California on robots that put people out of work.

The Associated Press reported that Jane Kim, the city supervisor who introduced the robot tax, says now is the time to think about how people will earn a living as more U.S. jobs are lost to automation.

Kim is launching a statewide campaign to bring revenue-raising ideas to the state legislature or directly to voters. She is also considering using revenue from the robot tax to supplement the low wages of people whose jobs can’t be automated, like home healthcare aides.

“I really do think automation is going to be one of the biggest issues around income inequality,” Kim says. “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.”

William Santana Li, CEO of security robot maker Knightscope, which created a K5 security robot that monitors the Westfield Valley Fair mall in San Jose, calls the notion “preposterous.” He says that because the private security industry suffers from high turnover and low pay, having robots handle menial tasks will allow human guards to take on greater responsibilities and probably earn more pay in the process.

“We’re working on 160 contracts right now, and I can maybe name two that are literally talking about, ‘How can I get rid of that particular human position?’”

Still, a recent report found that 9 percent of jobs in the United States — or about 13 million — could be automated. And even Bill Gates suggested earlier this year that a robot tax could slow down automation and give people time to prepare.

However, some analysts point out that automation should also generate jobs since workers will be needed, for example, to build and maintain robots and develop the software to run them.

“There are going to be a wider array of jobs that will support the automation economy,” said J.P. Gownder, an analyst at the research firm Forrester. “A lot of what we’re going to be doing is working side by side with robots.”

For some, though, the issue is more about safety than job security. Another San Francisco supervisor, Norman Yee, proposed barring food delivery robots from city streets, arguing that public sidewalks should be solely for people.

“I’m a people person,” Yee says, “so I tend to err on the side of things that should be beneficial and safe for people.”

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