San Francisco politician explores possibility of a 'robot tax'

The aim is to explore whether to broaden out the current payroll tax to cover robots performing jobs currently undertaken by humans.

A San Francisco-based politician has set up a committee to explore the benefits of introducing a “robot tax” to help retrain workers that lose their jobs due to automation.

Jane Kim, a civil rights attorney who represents District Six on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and has established a ‘Jobs of Future Fund’, told US broadcaster, CNBC: “We’re exploring continuing the payroll tax and extending it to robots that perform jobs humans currently do.”

The idea is that employers would pay equivalent payroll tax and social security amounts into a fund that the replaced worker was entitled to. The money would be used to train workers for future jobs and provide access to free community college places.

The aim was to “invest in creating meaningful and high-wage jobs in industries that are currently hard to automate like childcare workers, which is currently a poverty profession,” Kim explained.

Her stance mirrors that of Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates who also argued for a “robot tax” in an interview with earlier in the year.

“Right now, the human worker who does, say, $50,000-worth of work in a factory, that income is taxed and you get income tax, social security tax, all those things,” he said. “If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level.”

But Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation, which represents more than 1,100 robotics and tech companies, called the proposal a “really big mistake, not only for California, but for the country”. He attested that robots were “actually helping save and create jobs right now”.

Burnstein also told CNBC that research showed, over the last 20 years, whenever automation increased, unemployment fell as new jobs were created. He also claimed that additional taxes would harm innovation in the sector.

“Why would we want to put disincentives on companies using the best technology available?” he said.