Let’s take a breath: Robots and artificial intelligence systems are nowhere near displacing the human workforce. Nevertheless, no less a voice than Bill Gates has asserted just the opposite and called for a counterintuitive, preemptive strike on these innovations. His proposed weapon of choice? Taxes on technology to compensate for losses that haven’t happened.
AI has massive potential. Taxing this promising field of innovation is not only reactionary and antithetical to progress, it would discourage the development of technologies and systems that can improve everyday life.
Imagine where we would be today if policy makers, fearing the unknown, had feverishly taxed personal computer software to protect the typewriter industry, or slapped imposts on digital cameras to preserve jobs for darkroom technicians. Taxes to insulate telephone switchboard operators from the march of progress could have trapped our ever-present mobile devices on a piece of paper in an inventor’s filing cabinet.
There simply is no proof that levying taxes on technology protects workers. In fact, as former US treasury secretary Lawrence Summers recently wrote, “Taxes on technology are more likely to drive production offshore than create jobs at home.”
Calls to tax AI are even more stunning because they represent a fundamental abandonment of any responsibility to prepare employees to work with AI systems. Those of us fortunate enough to influence policy in this space should demonstrate real faith in the ability of people to embrace and prepare for change. The right approach is to focus on training workers in the right skills, not taxing robots.
There are more than half a million open technology jobs in the United States, according to the Department of Labor, but our schools and universities are not producing enough graduates with the right skills to fill them. In many cases, these are “new collar jobs” that, rather than calling for a four-year college degree, require sought-after skills that can be learned through 21st century vocational training, innovative public education models like P-TECH (which IBM pioneered), coding camps, professional certification programs and more. These programs can prepare both students and mid-career professionals for new collar roles ranging from cybersecurity analyst to cloud infrastructure engineer.
At IBM, we have seen countless stories of motivated new collar professionals who have learned the skills to thrive in the digital economy. They are former teachers, fast food workers, and rappers who now fight cyber threats, operate cloud platforms and design digital experiences for mobile applications. WIRED has even reported how, with access to the right training, former coal miners have transitioned into new collar coding careers.
The nation needs a massive expansion of the number and reach of programs students and workers can access to build new skills. Closing the skills gap could fill an estimated 1 million US jobs by 2020, but only if large-scale public private partnerships can better connect many more workers to the training they need. This must be a national priority.
First, Congress should update and expand career-focused education to help more people, especially women and underrepresented minorities, learn in-demand skills at every stage. This should include programs to promote STEM careers among elementary students, which increase interest and enrollment in skills-focused courses later in their educational careers. Next, high-school vocational training programs should be reoriented around the skills needed in the labor market. And updating the Federal Work-Study program, something long overdue, would give college students meaningful, career-focused internships at companies rather than jobs in the school cafeteria or library. Together, high-school career training programs and college work study receive just over $2 billion in federal funding. At around 3 percent of total federal education spending, that’s a pittance. We can and must do more.
Second, Congress should create and fund a 21st century apprenticeship program to recruit and train or retrain workers to fill critical skills gaps in federal agencies and the private sector. Allowing block grants to fund these programs at the state level would boost their effectiveness and impact.
Third, Congress should support standards and certifications for new collar skills, just as it has done for other technical skills, from automotive technicians to welders. Formalizing these national credentials and accreditation programs will help employers recognize that candidates are sufficiently qualified, benefiting workers and employers alike.
Taking these steps now will establish a robust skills-training infrastructure that can address America’s immediate shortage of high-tech talent. Once this foundation is in place, it can evolve to focus on new categories of skills that will grow in priority as the deployment of AI moves forward.
AI should stand for augmented—not artificial—intelligence. It will help us make digital networks more secure, allow people to lead healthier lives, better protect our environment, and more. Like steam power, electricity, computers, and the internet before it, AI will create more jobs than it displaces. What workers really need in the era of AI are the skills to compete and win. Providing the architecture for 21st century skills training requires public policies based on confidence, not taxes based on fear.