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As robots take human jobs, Supervisor Kim proposes a “robot tax”

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A Black Friday shopper interacts with Pepper, a robotic concierge stationed at Westfield Mall in San Francisco. (Jessica Christian/2016 S.F. Examiner)

In the past month, robots have been coming over to the Bay Area and taking our jobs, whether it be as a waiter at Oakland Airport, a barista in SoMa or food delivery just about anywhere in San Francisco. And Supervisor Jane Kim wants to tax them all for it.

Last week, the Examiner reported that Kim called for a hearing on March 14 to examine a possible “robot tax” in San Francisco. The gist of the tax — which will be the first in the United States — is to target companies which employ machines that replace a human job. The revenue collected will be directed to re-educating displaced humans for another career, Kim told me on the phone.

“I wanted to see what we can do to get ahead of the curve,” Kim said. “I think [the displacement] is going to be much bigger than what a lot of people think it is going to be.”

Kim’s idea was inspired by Bill Gates, who last month proposed a robot tax of his own. And even Gates’ idea isn’t original; European Union lawmakers considered a robot tax before rejecting one Feb. 16. Kim said she is working to convene a group to study the feasibility of a robot tax.

While Gates said that the tax is to “slow down the speed” of automation and — by association — innovation, Kim does not see this as an anti-Silicon Valley measure. She saw it as another way for San Francisco to invest in affordable education, in line with The City’s recent decision to make the City College of San Francisco free again.

Silicon Valley seems painfully aware of its own destructive power in replacing human labor for automation. As a result, the idea of a universal basic income (UBI) is one popular idea shared in the tech community. In Oakland, a much-anticipated UBI experiment led by Y Combinator is currently taking place. One hundred families pledged $1,000 to $2,000 a month for five years to see if such a safety net can work.

Kim is skeptical of UBI because she is unclear how the government (city, state or federal?) is going to generate the revenue to fund it. Governments are funded by taxes, and a non-working taxpayer base will mean a smaller tax pool to fund UBI.

“It’s a double conundrum,” Kim said.

Proponents of robot taxes and UBI are thinking of different solutions under the same rules. One rule is that the government is going to play a much larger role in ensuring the basic economic stability of its citizens. (Traditional economic conservatism seems to have no role in the future in this scenario.)

Another one is that the government acknowledges the new normal of robots filling up both low-income work like flipping burgers to middle-class work like acting as a lawyer in court. The government technically has the power to go full Luddite and just ban robot workers, but it is inconceivable to them when talking about the future of work.

But both solutions have stark philosophical differences. Robot taxes are a top-down approach: discouraging companies from using robot employees over humans. It is also protectionist, working as a 21st-century tariff to preserve a traditional but inefficient market in human labor. UBI, in contrast, thinks bottom-up and free market: directly give the people unconditional money to satisfy basic economic needs, so that they can pursue their passions or focus on innovation.

Personally, I don’t have a preference for one over the other — yet. However, it is exciting to see a non-UBI idea like a robot tax join the mix. And Kim expressed the same desire to get the public thinking more about the future of work.

“While some people are talking about it, it is not in the larger public discourse,” Kim said. “The hope is that the conversations are going to happen on a macro level.”

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Robots are not just taking jobs, they have also been taking over restaurants, too. One of the more famous ones is Eatsa, the fast-food chain startup that serves vegetarian bowls on a nearly fully autonomous self-service technology.

On Thursday, Eatsa was sued in a federal class action lawsuit led by American Council of the Blind. The lawsuit alleges Eatsa’s touchscreens and self-service food pick-ups are unusable by blind and low-vision customers and the startup has neglected to add accessibility features.

All too often in tech, the most marginalized sections of society are ignored or forgotten in the mad rush to build something new and cool. Uber, for example, was sued last year by a disability rights group in Chicago over wheelchair access.

This Eatsa class action lawsuit sadly wasn’t the first and definitely won’t be the last in the ongoing struggle between tech and disability rights. Welcome to the future.

The Nexus covers the intersection of technology, business and culture in San Francisco and beyond. Write to Seung at seungylee14@gmail.com.

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