AOC Gets the Positives of Robots Right, Until She Goes Wrong

AOC Gets the Positives of Robots Right, Until She Goes Wrong
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Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-Cortez can’t seem to avoid stirring controversy wherever she goes. Last week, she hit the payload at the South By Southwest Conference. But perhaps the most contentious thing she said there received little attention.

At SXSW, Ocasio-Cortez re-channeled a suggestion by Bill Gates, floating the notion that governments consider taxing robots. The goal is to save jobs - but it will actually discourage job creation.

Ocasio-Cortez surprised many by expressing a more realistic and nuanced view than many of her fellow left-wingers. She said she believes people should, in fact, be “excited about automation.” She specifically argued it could potentially leave more time for educating ourselves, creating art, investigating science, and focusing on invention.

Some have criticized that comment as a suggestion of a work-free society. But the amount of time we have spent producing to meet our basic needs has declined since the dawn of the industrial and agricultural revolutions, freeing us to do exactly the kind of things Ocasio-Cortez refers to.

However, she goes much further than that when she also proposes a tax on robotics. It is a suggestion that has been made by others. But it is a bad one. It would lead to fewer new jobs, and a lot less progress.

Should we also tax restaurant or institutional dishwashers, or for that matter Gates’ own operating systems? Surely a “robot” doesn’t have to look like Rosie the Maid from The Jetsons to perform automated functions - and cost somebody their job.

The fact is, we’ve been engaged for centuries in a process of delegating routine task to new technologies, allowing us to focus on more creative functions. We did not impose an innovation tax on tractors, planes or automobiles. If we had, a lot more of us would be working the fields, taking the train, or using a horse-drawn carriage. When you tax something, you get less of it.

In fact, by discouraging robots and other forms of artificial intelligence, we would actually be stymying job creation. A study by the research firm Gartner indicates that the result of robotics and other forms of artificial intelligence is not fewer jobs, but more of them. The company’s report concludes that by next year AI will generate 2.3 million new jobs, compared to 1.8 million that it will make redundant. By 2025, net new jobs will reach 2 million, the study found. These findings are confirmed by other firms, such as McKinsey and Deloitte.

What we are seeing is not economic devastation but transformation. The key to economic growth and job creation is improved productivity, which AI facilitates.

This simple fact has been recognized, for example, by the EU Parliament. Even while it passed legislation to regulate robots, including establishing an ethical framework for their development and deployment, the body specifically rejected a proposed robot tax that would fund support for workers put out of a job by robots. As the International Federation of Robotics pointed out: “The idea to introduce a robot tax that would have had a very negative impact on competitiveness and employment.” The IFR cited the German auto industry as an example of a correlation between robot deployments and development in advanced industrial nations.

If we want progress, the last thing we should be doing is increasing its cost. A robot tax would do exactly that. Rather than taxing productivity, we should be freeing it to create more wealth. That is what a true progressive believes in.

Allan Golombek is a Senior Director at the White House Writers Group. 

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