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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: “We should be excited about automation”

In a talk at SXSW, the New York Congresswoman notes that automation is a net positive when the government offers a social safety net.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: “We should be excited about automation”
[Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images]

Robots have put half a million people out of work in the United States, and researchers estimate that bots could take 800 million jobs by 2030. But New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says that widespread automation is an exciting proposition–as long as some kind of government safety net is in place to equitably help the people who are displaced.

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At the SXSW Conference in Austin, Texas, today, Ocasio-Cortez attributed widespread fear of robots taking jobs to the failure of underlying systems that should mitigate income inequality and economic precariousness. “We should not be haunted by the specter of being automated out of work,” she says. “We should not feel nervous about the tollbooth collector not having to collect tolls. We should be excited by that. But the reason we’re not excited about it is because we live in a society where if you don’t have a job, you are left to die.”

So how do you ensure that automation doesn’t decimate the working class? Ocasio-Cortez cited Bill Gates’s idea that you could tax robots at 90%. (Of course, she says, this really means “taxing corporations at 90%, but it’s easier to say, ‘tax a robot!'”) Another proposal suggests that those who are displaced would receive a universal basic income, an idea that a 2018 Gallup poll found was supported by 68% of Democrats and 28% of Republicans.

“Whether its a tax rate, whether it’s distributing wealth that’s created by automation–if we approach solutions to our systems and start entertaining ideas like that, then we should be excited about automation because of what it could potentially mean,” she says.

She painted a picture of what automation should do for society if government systems ensured that the wealth it creates lifted everyone up instead of just a select few:  It would enable people to spend more time on education, creating art, and scientific research and invention–“more time enjoying the world we live in,” Ocasio-Cortez said to cheering crowds. “Not all creativity needs to be bonded by wage.”

It’s the classic techno-futurist dream, one that Gates has also championed. But we don’t live in that world right now. “We should be working the least amount we’ve ever worked, if we were actually paid based on how much wealth we were producing, but we’re not,” she said. “We’re paid by how little we’re desperate enough to accept. And then the rest is skimmed off and given to a billionaire.”

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and follow her on Twitter @kschwabable

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