FILE - Automaton robot, car factory, assembly line

The Florida Legislature is encouraging investment in artificial intelligence and machine-learning technologies, most notably autonomous vehicles, but a proposal to study how rapidly accelerating advances in automation could affect the state’s workforce is gaining little traction in its 2018 legislative session.

House Bill 571, the proposed “Robot Tax Study” measure, would authorize the state’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) to examine “the impact of robots and other forms of technology with artificial intelligence on the labor force and tax revenues” and determine if taxing automation that eliminates jobs would do more damage than good to the state’s economy.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Roy Hardemon, D-Miami, and has been forwarded to the House Ways & Means and Government Accountability committees. The bill seeks a “working definition of ‘robot’ for purposes of taxation” and an analysis of how robots and other artificial intelligence technology have affected workforces in the past and how it could do so in Florida over a 20-year “planning horizon.”

However, according to Hardemon’s legislative assistant Teri Cariota, HB 571 “isn’t going anywhere” because it has not secured a sponsor for a companion Senate bill.

Miami-Dade County Councilman Johnny G. Farias said he convinced Hardemon to introduce the bill after reading of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates’ 2017 suggestion to tax robots that take human jobs.

Gates’ call for a robot tax “inspired” Farias to look into his community to see if local jobs were being displaced by automation. He found plenty of evidence.

“Once you start paying attention, you see it everywhere,” he said, such as order kiosks in McDonalds, self-checkout systems in Walmart that enable one employee to supervise five registers, and bank apps that allow customers to do all their transactions without talking to a person.

“People are losing their jobs,” Farias said. “All the bill says is the state needs to conduct a study to figure out what is going on.”

‘Automation Apocalypse’

Despite apparent disinterest in a robot tax study in Florida, similar proposals are surfacing elsewhere as technology and science leaders, including Tesla CEO Elon Musk and astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, join Gates in warning of a pending “automation apocalypse.”

There is ample research to support fears that automation will dramatically affect the service, manufacturing, transportation and retail industries, and alter the job market for such professions as paralegals and financial analysts, in the near future.

In 2013, Oxford economists Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne forecast 47 percent of all jobs in the U.S. could be eliminated through automation within 20 years. A 2016 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report concluded 9 percent of jobs in the U.S., about 13 million jobs, could be automated by 2025.

The European Parliament considered, and rejected, a 2017 proposal to tax robots as “electronic persons.” French presidential candidate Benoît Hamon included a “robot tax” in his 2017 campaign. UK Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn recently proposed taxing companies that replace jobs with robots.

In the U.S., Hawaiian lawmakers have agreed to “explore the idea” of a universal basic income to guarantee wages to servers, cooks and cleaners replaced by machines while in California, San Francisco Supervisor Jane Kim’s ‘Jobs of the Future Fund’ campaign is lobbying state lawmakers to authorize a study on imposing a state payroll tax on robots.

Not all economists agree automation will foster dramatic job losses. Harvard University economist Lawrence Summers, MIT economist David Autor and Thomson Reuters Center for AI and Cognitive Computing Director Dr. Khalid Al-Kofahi are among those who say robot taxes amount to protectionism against progress and that automation is the key to economic growth.

All maintain the only way a robot tax would have any benefit would be through universal adoption. Otherwise, they say, any nation or, in the context of the U.S., any state legislature, that imposed such a levy on technology would put itself at an economic disadvantage.

An ‘emerging issue’

The Florida Legislature, in fact, is investing in making the state a global leader in autonomous vehicle development. Among public-private initiatives is Florida Turnpike Enterprise’s $42 million SunTrax autonomous vehicle testing site near Auburn. The center will be totally financed by state turnpike toll revenues when operational in spring 2019

The 2.25-mile oval track is part of a 400-acre testing center for autonomous vehicles and “smart” technologies related to tolling, “intelligent transportation systems,” smart-phone-based payments, lane marking, signage and moveable barrier systems being built next to Florida Polytechnic University.

Florida lawmakers have adopted several bills encouraging autonomous vehicle development over the last few years. In 2016, the legislature notably eliminated a requirement that a human operator be present in a vehicle being tested, and required metropolitan planning organizations to consider infrastructure and technological improvements to accommodate driverless vehicles in long-range plans.

Two 2018 autonomous vehicle bills are now in committees. SB 712, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, has been approved by the Senate Transportation Committee and is now before the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee. HB 353, co-sponsored by Rep. Jason Fischer, R-Jacksonville and Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, has passed the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and is now in the Appropriations and General Accountability committees.

Both call for “clarifying ambiguities” and integrating new autonomous vehicle laws with other existing traffic laws. Brandes’ Senate bill defines six categories of autonomous vehicle operation and would make Florida law more consistent with federal guidance and industry standards. The House bill is similar, but retains Florida’s unique “autonomous technology” definition. Both call for significant revisions in liability requirements that would make autonomous vehicles less expensive to insure.

Farias supports the state’s effort to become a leader in autonomous vehicle research, but wonders how it could do that without, at least, studying what the ramifications would be for residents whose jobs could become obsolete by the very initiatives legislators are supporting.

Farias said he has friends who supplement retirement incomes by driving taxis part-time.

“Uber and Lyft came along and changed all that,” he said, noting soon Uber and Lyft won’t need many human drivers, eliminating a flexible job opportunity for a wide range of people, from students to retirees.

The proposed robot tax study would ask, “Exactly what will our workforce look like?” in a decade, he said. “With each job replaced by automation, we should be asking, ‘What is the state losing?’ and ‘Are there companies that are making a lot of money [through automation] but not giving anything back?’”

Farias said robot tax revenues could be directed into a fund to retrain workers displaced by automation. It should be “a time-sensitive tax” imposed only for several years, he said.

It doesn’t surprise Farias that the bill is unlikely to move forward this year.

“That is fine – as long as we are aware that this is an emerging issue,” he said, before adding, “It’s coming back next year. We will have a sponsor for it in both the House and the Senate.”